The Price of Upkeep

by Stevie Zvereva

When maintenance falls to the back burner, innovation may not endure.

Part of the fabric of America has always been our infrastructure—from the national highway system to our rail and waterways. But much of our growth in those areas is complete. And in a nation obsessed with innovation, maintenance of existing infrastructure is, in a word, dull.

“As a society, we’ve decided it’s cooler to build new stuff than to maintain what we have,” declares Tazewell County Engineer Craig Fink. “We’re not doing the basic maintenance that’s absolutely essential for the system. As a result, we’re building new things at the direct expense of the health of the system overall… and we’ve never done that before. This is brand-new territory.”

Maintaining the status quo largely remains behind-the-scenes business… at least until disaster strikes. Then priorities shift quickly.

For instance, it required billions of gallons of water flooding New Orleans in 2005 to prompt construction of a multi-billion-dollar network of levees, floodwalls and pumps, and implement a national levee safety program to mitigate threats to other high-risk areas. It took the rush-hour collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 to increase the state fuel tax to provide additional maintenance funding for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

In February, a crater appeared in the Oroville Dam spillway near Sacramento, California, during a flood-control release of Lake Oroville following a period of heavy rain. Concerns over the possible failure of the emergency spillway led to the mandatory evacuation of nearly 200,000 nearby residents. In response, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the situation “a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress.

“Dams, bridges, roads and all ports around the country have fallen into disrepair,” Spicer said. “In order to prevent the next disaster, we will pursue the president’s vision for overhaul of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.”

In Dire Straits
In a report released this spring, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) scored America’s cumulative infrastructure a D-plus. Released every four years, the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card depicts the state of U.S. infrastructure in the form of a school report card—assigning letter grades based on physical condition and the investments needed for improvement.

Grades in the 2017 report range from a B for Rail to a D-minus for Transit. The Parks, Solid Waste and Transit categories have all declined since 2013, while Hazardous Waste, Inland Waterways, Levees, Ports, Rail, Schools and Wastewater slightly improved. Grades for Aviation, Bridges, Dams, Drinking Water, Energy and Roads remain unchanged—and mostly dismal.

You could say ASCE saw the Oroville Dam disaster coming. In 2013, it gave California a D for the condition of its levees, dams and flood-control systems—the same grade it gave to dams nationwide. In this year’s report, ASCE estimates a price tag of nearly $45 billion to repair the nation’s aging, yet critical, high-hazard potential dams. While the overall condition of Illinois’ nearly 1,800 dams is above the national average, many are “decades old, and long-term funding for repair and replacement remains a key issue.”

Despite these findings, Michael Cox remains an optimist. As Operations Division Chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Rock Island District, he oversees more than 600 miles of navigation channels—300 each on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

“The [national] inland waterway system has gone from a D-minus to a D, and that’s a good success story,” he says, “A D is terrible and in great need of attention, but… we have seen improvements throughout the system.”

Combined with the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and Lake Michigan locks near Chicago, the Illinois River is of vital national importance as a commercial shipping route. An estimated 116 million tons of commodities valued at over $23 billion make their way through Illinois’ waterways each year.

“The inland navigation system around the country provides more than $7 billion in transportation savings to the country every year, and here on the Upper Mississippi River system… that value is about a billion dollars every year,” Cox notes. But for all that value, he adds, the system’s regular maintenance—upgrades, rehabilitation and repair—has not been prioritized accordingly.

A Glass Half Full
“Most of the locks are well beyond their 50-year design life,” Cox explains. “[Their] degrading condition is resulting in more unscheduled closures to respond to emergency breakdowns and repairs—which is decreasing the [waterways’] value to the nation.”

He estimates that the Mississippi Valley Division, which encompasses six USACE districts along the Mississippi River, has a maintenance backlog—known needs that are budgeted for, but unfunded—at just over $1 billion for navigation-related essentials alone.

It’s a frustrating situation, but Cox prefers to look up. The Rock Island District is a good local example of the D-minus to D jump, he offers. Since implementing a national asset management program in 2008, USACE has been able to keep better tabs on the needs and conditions of its facilities. It’s also enabled Cox and his team to identify the risk of continuing to run system components in their current condition—to predict which have a higher probability of failure, and to weigh the possible consequences of those failures.

“We’ve been able to get a better handle on what we have, what we don’t have, what we need, and what the priorities are,” he notes. This has made the local district more competitive for funding within the national USACE program. In fact, over the last six years, the Rock Island District has received an additional $150 million for infrastructure maintenance needs.

“A lot of us like to talk doom and gloom because there are catastrophic failures, there is significantly degrading infrastructure, and that’s going to continue,” Cox says. “But with the funding we have, our operators, contractors and maintenance workers do an outstanding job to keep the facilities running 24/7.

“Even though we have an increase of unscheduled closures for breakdowns and emergencies, it’s still a relatively reliable system. I want to say that before I say [this]: if we don’t do anything differently than what we’re doing today… the unscheduled closures will continue to increase to the point that reliability is going to be seriously in question.”

Shortfalls and Priorities
If you’re driving west at sunset on Willow Knolls toward Allen Road in Peoria, good luck turning left. If the half-patched concrete or awkward island traffic lights don’t slip you up, the glaring sun on cars at that hour make turns nearly impossible without a bit of faith.

“It’s a bad one,” stresses Amy McLaren, County Engineer at the Peoria County Highway Department. “The whole intersection’s geometric system is not under current standards.”

This intersection, among other projects, was slated for reconstruction last November under a proposed quarter-cent sales tax referendum that would have designated over $2 million towards a new configuration to offset the traffic light mast arms, replace damaged concrete, and add suitable pedestrian accommodations. But the measure—local residue of a rather memorable national ballot—was voted down.

McLaren suggests there may have been voter confusion over multiple local referendums. Besides the referendum for local road improvements, there was an advisory referendum to increase property taxes to assist military veterans and their families, a county sales tax initiative for school facility improvements, and a proposed, transportation-related “lockbox” amendment to the state constitution. Somehow, the road referendum was the only one that failed to pass.

When forced to choose, people make priorities, McLaren notes. “Frankly, schools are a lot nearer and dearer to people than roads. You drive over the roads and unless you personally experience damage, delays or inconvenience, you might forget about it.”

Yet her office is constantly fielding calls from concerned residents. “‘There are potholes…’ or ‘This road’s a mess—when are you going to do something about it?’” she describes. “It’s an expensive endeavor, and not everyone understands what is involved and the cost order of magnitude.”

Peoria County estimates a shortage in excess of $2 million annually to raise the pavement condition index to an “acceptable” level of 70 or above. In Tazewell County, Fink estimates a similar shortfall of funding for basic highway maintenance.

With regular, preventative maintenance, road reclamation can be staved off, he explains. Without it, “you have to go in and completely reclaim the road—not just the surface you could’ve protected—but the structural layers underneath.”

And without funding, their departments’ hands are tied. “We do what we can with what we’ve got,” adds McLaren, “which… means a lot of patching.”

Making Do
“Making do” is a common theme for the nation’s roadways, as one of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition, according to ASCE. “I think the conditions are going to continue to deteriorate as time goes by,” McLaren declares, “unless we get some sort of large federal spending program or state-level capital spending program—which I don’t anticipate anytime soon.”

Local roads are funded in two ways: at the pump through the motor fuel tax (MFT), and through motor vehicle revenue (MVR), which includes everything you pay to the Illinois Secretary of State. Historically, MFT is the larger pot, from which local government has always received a percentage.

“It’s a formula that’s been arrived at through years of give and take… so that everyone’s being treated equitably,” Fink says. “We carry 40 percent of the traffic, and so they used to return 40 percent through formula. Every county, township and city street was reinvested in, enough to maintain.” But times have changed.

While local roads share directly in the motor fuel tax, the same is not true for motor vehicle revenue. In other words, if the MFT revenue collected by the state increases, the share for local roads automatically increases proportionally. But if the MVR revenue increases, local roads receive none of the additional proceeds. Little by little, the state has been increasing its MVR revenue, says Fink, while the motor fuel tax has not been raised since 1989. “This huge chasm is being created statewide.”

A New Plan for Old Stuff
To be sure, insufficiently prioritized road maintenance is not due to a reduced reliance on roadways. According to ASCE, U.S. roads carried people and goods over three trillion miles last year—the second-highest level ever recorded. The problem is: the second life cycle of infrastructure is just not that fun.

“Road maintenance is boring,” McLaren says. “There’s not a lot of ribbon cutting, and you can’t always put a face with [it] like you can with other social service agency issues.”

Legislators want to show voters that there’s a reason to raise a fee, Fink adds. “Driving on the road you’re already driving on is not a good motivator… They want to show voters they’re getting something new.”

But amidst our society’s emphasis on the new and innovative, it can be argued that development is slowed—or halted altogether—due to lack of infrastructure investment. Peoria’s Warehouse District is just one example, having required millions of federal and state dollars for infrastructure before any private investment moved forward. So for some, the president’s proposal for a trillion-dollar investment in national infrastructure is a step in the right direction—though concern remains over its reliance on private developers.

House Speaker Paul Ryan stresses that public-private partnerships are the key to a solid infrastructure plan: that “for every one dollar of federal dollars, there's $40 of private-sector spending.” But some fear such a plan may only attract for-profit projects that can recoup their costs through user fees—while more pressing needs go unfunded. And those are the projects that are most ripe for federal aid: like Illinois’ waterways. While Cox says the USACE is tinkering with the idea of launching a user fee program based on successful models in other countries, it’s a long way away.

“There are all kinds of phrases out there: ‘Do more with less.’ ‘Be more efficient.’ But none of that has any real, meaningful impact on the dollars we’re talking about,” says Fink. “We simply haven’t asked people to pay a little bit more for the service they’ve become accustomed to. Historically, we’ve always done that. That’s how the system we have today was built and how it was maintained.”

In short, maintenance needs to become a priority, before it becomes a necessity.

“My entire career is based on making the bridges and roads as safe as I possibly can with whatever money is available,” Fink adds. “Unfortunately… there’s often a tragedy before any action is taken—before they can come to an agreement on how much to collect and how to distribute it back.” iBi

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