Origins interviews the American Society of Civil Engineers

About this Episode

Guests
Tom Smith

In this segment of our episode on infrastructure and public investment in the United States, host Patrick Potyondy interviews Tom Smith, the Executive Director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, who describes the current state of America's public infrastructure.

Cite this Site

Patrick R. Potyondy , "Origins interviews the American Society of Civil Engineers" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
March, 2016
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/historytalk/origins-interviews-american-society-civil-engineers?language_content_entity=en.
March, 2016

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy  
This is Patrick Potyondy. And I'm speaking over the phone with Tom Smith, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Tom, thank you for joining us today on History Talk.

Tom Smith  
Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Patrick Potyondy  
So to start off, your organization, the ASCE produces a national report card every four years. Can you briefly describe what it is?

Tom Smith  
You bet. We started this report card back in 1998. The concept for that actually started in 1988 with the National Council on Public Works Improvement, they issued a report on America's public works. 

Patrick Potyondy  
Oh, interesting. 

Tom Smith  
Yeah, congressionally chartered. And so 10 years later, we said it'd be nice if that report continued, so we said let's start our own. And we did that in 1998, to continue that on. And we then issued the report in 2001, 2005, 2009, as well as 2013.

Patrick Potyondy  
Great, and can you give us some details on the report card's, you know, size and scope? Maybe a little bit on how the ASCE goes about conducting this evaluation?

Tom Smith  
Sure. And by the way, the next report card will come out in 2017. What we do is we look at 16 categories of America's infrastructure. So that includes aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, public parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, solid waste transit and wastewater. And overall then we have a cumulative grade point average. And we do it just like you would a report card that your kids would take home. And unfortunately, right now, the cumulative GPA is a D+. Although that is actually, in 2013, higher than it was in 2009, when it was at a D. 

Patrick Potyondy  
Okay, so there has been a little bit improvement in the most recent years, then.

Tom Smith  
Yes, in fact, none of the categories went down between 2009 and 2013, and six categories did go up. But again, our grade is still at a D+, so it's certainly not a grade that you'd be proud to take home and show your parents.

Patrick Potyondy  
Yeah, exactly, nothing to write home about, certainly. Are there any specific examples you'd like to highlight to show, you know, just how bad some of our infrastructure has become?

Tom Smith  
Well, you know, in general, I'll just mention, some things are out of sight out of mind, I'm afraid. Things like drinking water and wastewater networks. We have about 240,000 waterline breaks every year. So it's every couple of minutes, there's a waterline break in the United States. 

Patrick Potyondy 
Oh, wow.

Tom Smith  
Yeah. And so unfortunately, these things are also part of a larger system. So you know, here, we're here in DC, I was downtown in 2014 when the DC metro waterline broke, and then it shuts down the metro. So three lines go down and so now that's shutting down your transit system, and all those people are going up to find, you know, taxis and to see if they can get on buses, and so there's just gridlock on the transportation system. So those things are all interconnected. So we do see that, unfortunately, with many different areas, both in transportation, waterlines, etc.

Patrick Potyondy  
Yeah, and you mentioned that some of these are out of sight out of mind, why do you think that is? Why is it so easy for folks to forget about these sorts of things?

Tom Smith  
You know, I think we just take it for granted. 

Patrick Potyondy  
Right. 

Tom Smith  
You know, you turn on the water, you get clean water every day, and wastewater is removed, and we just don't think about it. I think maybe sometimes the transportation, sitting in traffic, people do realize it. But it's unfortunate, much of our infrastructure has been built many decades ago, post World War Two, our interstate highway system, and these things require operation and maintenance and we're nearing the end of the useful life of much of our infrastructure. And so we have to maintain it just as you would at, you know, your home or your car.

Patrick Potyondy  
Right. And so lastly, what would you like to happen next? How might we address this, you know, huge problem?

Tom Smith  
Well, the first thing we tried to do is just change the conversation and make sure everybody's aware of the issue. 

Patrick Potyondy 
Right, ok.

Tom Smith  
And that's one of the things we've done with the report card. We really need to increase our leadership when it comes to infrastructure renewal. We need to also focus on sustainability and resilience. And we need to develop and fund plans to maintain our infrastructure. So with relative to transportation, we've been a big advocate of increasing the the gas tax as a sustainable, financial way to do it. 

Patrick Potyondy  
Right, which hasn't been increased for some years, right? 

Tom Smith  
Yes, since 1992. So it's, we just don't have the funding mechanism in place. And unfortunately, with infrastructure, the people who use it are going to have to pay for it. We all have to pay for infrastructure, we all benefit from it.

Patrick Potyondy  
Okay, well, Tom Smith is the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, which every four years produces a report card on America's infrastructure. Tom, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Tom Smith  
Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks very much. 

Patrick Potyondy  
Thank you.