The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineThe ASCE Report Card advocates for infrastructure

The ASCE Report Card advocates for infrastructure

By Jay Landers

Since its initial release in 1998, ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card has increased the visibility of infrastructure among the public and elected officials. At both the national and state levels, the report card has been used by ASCE members and others to advocate for infrastructure. Once largely ignored, the question of how best to upgrade and maintain public works around the country continues to gain prominence, increasing hopes that viable solutions will continue to be found. 

Since its introduction more than 20 years ago, ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card has only gained in stature and influence. Issued every four years as a way of assessing the state of U.S. infrastructure and offering recommendations for how to improve it, the national report card garners daily mentions in the media and is regularly invoked by politicians, pundits, and others as part of discussions regarding the nation’s public works. Inspired by the national model, many state and local versions of the report card have helped boost support for infrastructure locally, contributing to numerous electoral victories in recent years. In short, the report card has helped make members of the general public and their elected officials more mindful of the critical role that infrastructure plays in America’s technologically advanced economy.

Much work remains to be done to educate the average person regarding the importance of adequately funding and maintaining infrastructure. However, awareness of infrastructure has increased significantly over the years as a result of the report card, says Edward Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania and the co-chair of Building America’s Future Educational Fund, a bipartisan coalition of elected officials focused on increasing investment in infrastructure. “Suffice it to say, the American public didn’t have much of an idea about infrastructure,” Rendell says.

under construction span of an Alabama bridge
ASCE issued its first report card in 1998, timed to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the release of a federal assessment of the state of the nation’s infrastructure. (Illustration based on a photograph by the Alabama Department of Transportation (OCTOBER 2019))

ASCE’s campaign to make infrastructure more visible has succeeded, Rendell says. “The report card has humanized infrastructure, and it has combined with efforts of advocacy groups like Building America’s Future, so now infrastructure is on virtually every American’s mind,” he says. “They know what it is. They know our infrastructure is falling apart. They know our infrastructure has made us uncompetitive in the global marketplace. I think the report card has been a very important factor in getting the American public’s attention.”

ASCE issued its first report card in 1998, timed to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the release of Fragile Foundations: A Report on America’s Public Works. Released in February 1988, Fragile Foundations was prepared by the congressionally chartered National Council on Public Works Improvement. In a novel move, the council assigned individual grades to eight categories of public works: highways, mass transit, aviation, water resources, water supply, wastewater, solid waste, and hazardous waste. The grades ranged from a high of B for the water resources category to a low of D for hazardous waste. 

“If our public works were graded on an academic scale, their recent performance would earn a scant C — barely adequate to support current demands,” the report concluded. For its part, the National Council on Public Works Improvement made several recommendations, including dramatically increased capital spending by the private sector and all levels of government, greater flexibility regarding compliance with federal and state mandates, accelerated spending of existing federal trust funds for infrastructure, and greater financing of public works by those who benefit from services.

stylized levee photo
Levees first appeared as a category in the 2009 report card. Shown here is a levee protecting Gretna, Louisiana, from floodwaters on the Mississippi River. (Illustration based on a photograph from WikiMedia Images/(Infrogmation of New Orleans)

Unfortunately, the Fragile Foundations report did little to change how America addressed its public works. Rather than sparking new approaches to funding, developing, and maintaining infrastructure, the 1988 report to the president and Congress “just sat there, as so many reports do,” says Gregory DiLoreto, P.E., P.L.S., D.WRE, Pres.13.ASCE, the chair emeritus of the ASCE Committee on America’s Infrastructure, the group that prepares the report card.

Nearly a decade after the release of the Fragile Foundations report, ASCE was seeking to promote greater interest in infrastructure among elected officials and the general public. “We were trying to figure out if we could make something that the public could understand, that policymakers could understand, and that the media could easily grasp,” said Casey Dinges, who recently retired as ASCE’s senior managing director for strategic communications, government relations, marketing, and membership. Aware of the impending anniversary of the 1988 report, ASCE took up the challenge of reviewing the state of the nation’s infrastructure in 1998 and assigning its own grades to various public works sectors.  

At the time, ASCE had policy committees that met annually to evaluate issues pertaining to many of the various facets of infrastructure. These committees provided a “mechanism” by which the Society could assess the condition of infrastructure nationally, Dinges said. “We have experts in all these categories,” he noted. “Who better than our members to comment on this?”

The members of the policy committees and ASCE’s government relations staff spent the next several months preparing the first report card. “We were pulling together any information from 1988 to 1998 that could be relevant to say, ‘This grade’s gone up or gone down,’’” Dinges recalled. The approximately 30-page document that resulted was a far cry from today’s highly polished digital creations. “The release was on 8 ½ by 11 inch sheets of paper,” he said. “We were using a copier machine and staples.”

The 1998 report card featured 10 infrastructure categories, two more than its predecessor: roads, bridges, mass transit, aviation, schools, drinking water, wastewater, dams, solid waste, and hazardous waste. Highlighting a general decline in the nation’s public works during the previous decade, the report card assigned an overall average grade of D for the nation’s infrastructure. Grades for individual categories ranged from a C for mass transit to an F for schools.

Since its introduction more than 20 years ago, ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card has only gained in stature and influence.

In terms of presenting its information, the report card was formatted to be digested by readers as simply as possible. For each infrastructure category, the report card included “a grade, a sound bite, a paragraph, and a page,” Dinges explained. “That was the whole idea.”

ASCE released the results of the initial report card to about 15 reporters “in a small room at the National Press Club,” Dinges recalled. Although the findings generated some immediate attention, the report card truly began gaining traction after it caught the attention of a certain former governor who had moved to Washington, D.C., some five years earlier.

President Bill Clinton highlighted the report’s findings, particularly its low mark for schools. “He zeroed in on that,” Dinges said. Looking to boost funding for schools, Clinton used the report card “to pursue his agenda,” Dinges noted. In the process, the president began referring to the report card, as well as ASCE, in his remarks. “Something significant happened when Clinton identified the report card in public statements,” he said. “That gave it some visibility.”

Buoyed by the newfound attention to infrastructure, ASCE turned its attention to a follow-up effort. The timing had to be just right, Dinges said. “Going forward, we thought it would be better after a presidential election but before a new administration starts putting its agenda together,” he said. “We wanted the report card to be fresh” just as the White House and a new Congress would be turning their attention to their legislative priorities regarding infrastructure, Dinges said. “That meant early spring 2001.” Since then, ASCE has released a report card every four years in March.

photo of egg-shaped digesters at a wastewater treatment plant
ASCE’s report card has helped achieve more funding for wastewater treatment facilities. Shown here are the egg-shaped digesters at the Newton Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in New York City. (Illustration based on a photograph from WikiMedia Images/(Netherzone))

The four-year release cycle for new reports has worked well, DiLoreto says. “Any shorter period than that, the data is not much different, so you wouldn’t have any different results,” he says. Meanwhile, waiting longer than four years runs the risk of the report card losing its relevance. “If you don’t keep it in front of people, particularly elected officials who have so many things on their plates, it will (be) forgotten,” DiLoreto says.

Elected officials, in turn, have come to rely on the report card, though its quadrennial appearance is not necessarily a cause for celebration in all quarters, says Rendell, the former governor. “Public officials dread the report card,” he says. “Opponents of officeholders can point to the poor marks in the report card as evidence that Congress has basically dropped the ball.” 

ASCE’s release of versions of the report card for individual states has perhaps exacerbated such feelings. “If you’re a senator or congressman or even a governor, and the roads are given a C- or a D+, that gives fodder to someone who’s campaigning against you for reelection,” Rendell notes.

When he has shared the results of a report card with public officials, “there’s a degree of trepidation” on their part, acknowledges John Hogan, P.E., M.ASCE, a senior vice president for David Evans and Associates Inc. and a co-chair of the 2019 California Infrastructure Report Card Committee. “It’s like getting your report card in school,” Hogan says. “They’re anxious to see what the grades are.”

For this reason, the report card serves as a “great conversation starter,” Hogan says. “We take it when we sit down with a legislator,” he explains. “You can just walk through the grades and some of the issues that we identify in a particular category, and then discuss the things that we believe need to be done to raise grades. It facilitates those kinds of conversations between ASCE members and elected officials and the general public.”

In his experience interacting with elected officials, Darren Olson, P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE, a vice president for Christopher B. Burke Engineering Ltd., has found them to be highly receptive to the information contained in the report card. Olson is a co-vice chair of the ASCE Committee on America’s Infrastructure, which is preparing the next national report card to be released in March 2021. Olson also chairs the committee that has developed three versions of the report card covering the state of Illinois. 

“When you begin to explain to elected officials why certain parts of the infrastructure have a D grade, and you explain the different criteria, they all understand,” Olson says. Public works are “not at the forefront of their minds, but they generally understand that they’re underinvesting in infrastructure,” he says. “So, they generally are not surprised and are very appreciative that we’ve spent the time to crunch the numbers and boil it down to a very manageable document that everyone can understand.” 

DiLoreto has had similar experiences. The report card “appeals to (elected officials) because of its simplicity,” he says. “It’s not an engineering document prepared by engineers that’s hundreds of pages long, incredibly complex, and frankly, hard to read,” DiLoreto says. “It is a simple report card that every single person, both elected officials and nonelected officials, can understand. We all got report cards. We know what the A meant; we know what the F meant. And so it’s very simple to understand.”

The stature of ASCE and the civil engineering profession in general also helps ensure a positive reception for the report card and its findings. “When we go in as members of ASCE to speak with an elected official, just the fact that we’re civil engineers automatically gives us tremendous credibility,” Hogan says. “They see us as being the experts in this particular field. They pay attention.”

The stature of ASCE and the civil engineering profession in general also helps ensure a positive reception for the report card and its findings.

As both a civil engineer and state legislator, Clyde Chambliss Jr., P.E., M.ASCE, can attest to the credence that lawmakers and others give to the report card. The owner of the civil engineering firm Chambliss Engineering, located in Prattville, Alabama, Chambliss — the recipient of ASCE’s 2019 Outstanding Public Official Award — is a Republican representing District 30 in the Alabama Senate. “My colleagues look to me for the issues related to the engineering profession,” Chambliss says.

“Our engineering profession (is) trusted by the public,” Chambliss notes. “When they see a report card that comes out by engineers about infrastructure, it has a lot of credibility. The people take it seriously because they know that engineers do their research and due diligence before stating something like that.”

In fact, some engineers who lobby on behalf of infrastructure issues end up becoming trusted sources of information for their elected officials. Rebecca Shelton, P.E., F.ASCE, the assistant director of the Department of Water Resources for Gwinnett County, Georgia, regularly participates in ASCE’s Legislative Fly-In Program, in which Society members meet with their representatives on Capitol Hill. “I go up there every year for the Fly-In and talk to my elected
officials and their staff about the report card,” says Shelton, who is on ASCE’s Committee on America’s Infrastructure and has thrice led or co-led the development of the Report Card for Georgia’s Infrastructure. As a result of such meetings, “they realize they have constituents who are experts on infrastructure,” she says. In turn, she has fielded calls about infrastructure from the staff of her representative in Congress. “It definitely makes us a resource for them,” Shelton says.

At the federal level, the report card has helped spur improved policies and greater funding for various facets of infrastructure, DiLoreto says. As an example, he points to the creation in 2014 of the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program. Administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, WIFIA is a federal credit program that provides low-interest loans for certain drinking water and wastewater projects. By highlighting the need for improvement in these sectors, the report card “helped elected officials understand what the economic impact” of inadequately funded water and wastewater infrastructure “meant to America,” DiLoreto says.

Undoubtedly, the report card has helped achieve results at the state level. “I think the state-level reports have been one of the reasons that almost 30 states have raised their gas tax in the last four years,” Rendell says. “The states have responded much better than the federal government. I think the report cards have been a catalyst there too.”

Alabama offers a recent example of just such a case. In 2019, the Rebuild Alabama Act became law, phasing in a 10-cent-per-gallon increase in the state’s gas tax over three years and indexing it for inflation. Funding from the act is to be used for the state’s roads and bridges as well as dredging of the Port of Mobile. The ASCE 2015 Report Card for Alabama’s Infrastructure was a “big component of the basis of information for knowing that we need the additional revenue,” Chambliss says. 

Illinois offers another case in point. The Illinois Section of ASCE issued a report card for its state infrastructure in 2010, 2014, and 2018. “We’ve found in Illinois that it’s extremely important to continue to do this report card so that the public and our elected officials know that part of their responsibility is to allocate sufficient resources and to invest properly in our infrastructure,” Olson says.

These efforts paid off in May 2019, when newly elected Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker proposed his Rebuild Illinois plan, which called for $41.5 billion in capital spending over six years. More than two-thirds of the funding was slated for transportation, with much of the rest devoted to state facilities and education. In its introduction, Pritzker’s plan cited the 2018 Report Card for Illinois Infrastructure. “That was just unbelievably rewarding,” Olson says. “After eight years of hard work, it was the icing on top of the cake.” Rebuild Illinois became law in August 2019.

The Georgia Section of ASCE issued a Report Card for Georgia’s Infrastructure in 2014 and 2019. Whereas the 2014 report card assigned an overall grade of C to Georgia’s infrastructure, the 2019 version gave an overall grade of C+.

Key improvements that led to the improved grade included increased funding and additional staff for the state’s dams program. “We saw significant improvement there,” Shelton says. The 2014 report card also had cited the need for local governments to better fund their stormwater management programs to improve inspection and maintenance. Between 2014 and 2019, Georgia added nearly 20 stormwater utilities, a 44 percent increase, Shelton says. 

In the realm of transportation, legislation passed in 2015 increased state spending on roads and bridges by $1 billion. To address transit-related issues in the Atlanta metropolitan area, the state created the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority, with the goal of improving collaboration among existing local transit systems. Progress also was made on efforts to expand the Savannah Harbor to enable larger ships to access the Port of Savannah.

“I can’t say that the report card is the reason (that Georgia made those changes),” Shelton says. “But I can say that people use the report card a lot when they are looking for facts about infrastructure or they are looking for recommendations.”

In 2018, the California Section of ASCE was busy preparing its 2019 Report Card for California’s Infrastructure when it decided to take the unusual step of releasing several months early a “mini” report card summarizing its findings regarding the state’s surface transportation system. The reason? That November, California’s voters were to vote on Proposition 6, a ballot initiative intended to repeal a recent 12-cent-
per-gallon increase in the state’s gas tax, the first such increase in more than 20 years. The additional revenues from the higher gas tax were to be used for highways, bridges, and transit. Passage of Proposition 6 would have eliminated more than $5 billion annually in existing transportation funds.

The California Section of ASCE quickly became “part of the No on 6 campaign,” Hogan says. “The subcommittees preparing the grades for roads, bridges, and transit all went into high gear,” he says, in order to provide the data needed for the release of the abbreviated report card that October. “That was done to a lot of fanfare, a lot of press and media coverage, up and down the state,” Hogan says. “It was part of a very successful campaign that enabled the measure to be defeated.”

The mini report card “served as a great tool for us not only to educate elected officials but also to be able to do so for the general public,” says Elizabeth Ruedas, P.E., ENV SP, M.ASCE, a surface water engineer with Michael Baker International. Ruedas participated as a spokesperson for the No on 6 campaign, even speaking alongside Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at a media event in advance of the November 2018 election. 

For Ruedas, the purpose and need for the report card are clear. “It keeps infrastructure funding at the forefront” of public discussion, she says. Without the recurring focus provided by the report card, infrastructure would recede from public view, Ruedas says, especially in her state of California, which already faces more than its share of challenges. “It would be easy to let infrastructure move to the back burner, especially given the global pandemic as well as the natural disasters that we have seen,” she notes.

Ultimately, the report card “provides a benefit to everyone based on the knowledge of the members of ASCE,” Shelton says. “It’s something that civil engineers couldn’t do individually. ASCE brings us together to become that credible resource to our elected officials and the public.”

For Hogan, the report card comes down to awareness. “It’s done a great job of elevating awareness in people’s minds, the public as well as the policymakers,” he says. “I think it’s one of the best things that ASCE has ever done in the field of advocacy.

This article first appeared in the November 2020 issue of Civil Engineering as “Advocating for Infrastructure.”

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