The exercise of grading California’s public infrastructure can be a useful one, but as the 2012 infrastructure report card issued by our colleagues at ASCE clearly indicates, little has been achieved in the six years since the last report card.  In fact, California’s grades have hardly improved since 2006.

With the estimated price tag for maintaining our infrastructure doubling in the last six years to $65 billion, the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) of California believes that our state’s policy-makers need new ideas for solutions on how to improve the grades and better leverage our state’s extremely limited capital.

“We must invest more in our infrastructure, but it would be very foolish to simply throw money at our problems without thoughtful and sustainable programs in place.  We need to make sure that we get the most bang for the buck,” says Paul Meyer, Executive Director of ACEC California.

ACEC California offers the following suggestions for producing higher grades in six key infrastructure areas by 2018:

Solid Waste (2012 Grade:  B)
“Solid waste management is a public health issue, and we should be demanding the highest grade possible,” Meyer states.  While the combination of public and private sector waste management programs attained the highest grade for any California infrastructure program in 2012, there was no improvement over the 2006 grade.  To improve the grade, the state needs to push policies that incorporate recycled materials in purchasing specifications so that products diverted from landfill, stay out of landfills.  We should also re-evaluate program priorities and consider factors such as air quality and wear and tear on our roads, so that mega-landfills are not the only low cost option for solid waste.  Valued properly, solid waste programs can even provide the benefit of locally produced, cost effective energy.

Aviation (2012 Grade:  C+)
“Airports are micro cities, with much of the same building, pavement and utility infrastructure, yet the cost of infrastructure within an airport is generally much more than what it costs to build in a city.  If we can get that cost closer to a municipal cost, we can do more with less,” says Meyer.  ACEC California suggests rethinking airport design.  The basic concept of an airport requiring very large terminal facilities to support airport operations has been essentially unchanged for decades.  Advancements in other market sectors, such as personal rapid transit systems, as well as the broader application of information technology (which can be used in micro energy grids), provide the opportunity to improve the efficiency and operational performance of the terminal, through cross-market integration.

Transportation  (2012 Grade:  C-) 

“California can make major steps towards a higher grade by creating a leaner, more efficient and modern state department of transportation,” Meyer says.  Simple math suggests that Caltrans probably won’t need the 20,000-plus staff it has today to deliver a dramatically scaled-down $2.5 billion transportation program in 2015.  It is time to reduce state staffing, assign more resources to actual improvements (rather than administrative costs), authorize municipalities and counties to take more responsibility for project delivery, and make greater use of innovative delivery techniques like public-private partnerships and design-build.  These techniques are widely used by other states and nations to speed up project delivery, improve accountability and increase efficiency.  ACEC California also recommends that the state reconsider and revamp how it pays for transportation improvements.  The current system, which primarily relies on gas tax revenue, is becoming more and more archaic as the popularity of electric, hybrid and non-traditional vehicles rises.

Water (2012 Grade:  C)

 “With regard to water supply, California is literally living off of the past and the tremendous legacy of the first Governor Brown.  However, that is no longer sufficient,” said Meyer.  While taking care to protect the environment, California needs more and upgraded water storage and water transport facilities.  Public-private partnerships are particularly useful tool for delivering new water supply projects.  “Not only is most of our water infrastructure old, it is no longer adequate to meet the needs of our current and projected population.  If we are going to provide job opportunities for our young people, if our farmers are going to maintain the productivity of their land, and if our families are going to have enough water to meet their needs, we simply need more water supply.”

Levees/Flood Control (2012 Grade:  D) 

Today’s engineers and construction contractors have much better tools and much more knowledge about levees, than we had when most of our levees were originally designed and constructed.  Rather than wait for another life threatening disaster to happen, California needs to act now to dedicate an adequate revenue stream to get the job done.  Not only is this essential for human safety, it will also be far, far cheaper to fix our levees in advance, than it will be to do major clean up and repair work after a disaster.  “Most of California’s levees are old and have lost much of their original strength ability to hold back flood waters.  The danger to California homes and businesses and human life is very real,” commented Meyer.  “There is no excuse for failing to upgrade and strengthen our levees.”

Ports (2012 Grade:  B-)

“California’s ports are a key element in our state’s global competitiveness, and efficient goods movement should be an economic priority for our state.  To stay competitive we must have higher grades for our ports,” said Meyer.  ACEC California believes we can get there by taking a more cohesive approach to our port structures and their connections with other modes of transportation.  The idea is to view our ports as part of a complete transportation system and plan accordingly.  We can also improve our ports by making sure that our Harbor Maintenance Tax funds are allocated and used for their intended purpose.  Finally, California needs to stay firmly committed to achieving and maintaining in our ports the national infrastructure standard of “State of Good Repair” (SGR).