Though often taken for granted, infrastructure systems provide the backdrop for everyday life – affecting our commutes, our school systems, and even our drinking water.

The time for making improvements to our nation’s infrastructure – from roads and bridges to wastewater systems, public parks and schools – is now, according to Blaine Leonard, President, American Society of Civil Engineers and Research Program Manager for the Utah Department of Transportation, who recently shared his insights on the state of infrastructure in the U.S.

MuniNet: Looking back over the past decade, what have been the most notable trends in infrastructure in the U.S.?

Leonard: From a big-picture standpoint, two trends have emerged over the past decade. The first is the realization that infrastructure improvements are undeniably necessary. Most of the infrastructure in the U.S. was built in the past one hundred years, and modernized in the past fifty. Our infrastructure systems are becoming worn out (and, in some cases, even crumbling) not because they were built badly or wrong, but due to use over time and growth beyond the anticipated capacity.

That realization has translated into the second trend: heightened awareness of infrastructure in both the public and political arenas. The fact that the word “infrastructure” is even part of mainstream vocabulary illustrates the increased focus by the news media, elected officials and the general public. The ASCE Report Card for America’s Infrastructure has particularly increased attention to infrastructure performance in the political sphere.

MuniNet: Are these trends different than in past decades?

Leonard: Yes … in the 1950s and 1960s, the nation’s focus was on building a massive, economically viable interstate highway system that would expand our mobility beyond those of the rail system of the late 1800s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in 1970 to strive for cleaner air, water and land throughout the country; and the trend throughout the 1970s was attention to safe water, increasing clean water supply, building sewer systems and eliminating contamination in surface waters.

MuniNet: In the public’s eye – at least on a national level – the Minneapolis I35-W bridge collapse was perhaps the most devastating example of infrastructure failure in recent years… were there others? 

Leonard: The Minneapolis bridge collapse received a huge amount of attention in the press, but it was really a different kind of disaster than was characterized by much of the news coverage. The bridge did not collapse because of a simple design flaw or old age. There was a design deficiency, but conservative design allowed the bridge to function for several decades. Rather, modifications to the bridge over time which substantially increased its weight plus the additional weight of materials being stored on the bridge during a construction project caused an overload on the bridge’s capacity. It was this combination of factors that led to its catastrophic failure during evening rush hour.

The flooding in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina is an example of a very different type of infrastructure failure. A storm the strength of Katrina is expected to cause some failure, however as a result of a series of unfortunate engineering decisions and policy failures over many years, the massive system of dikes and levees built to safeguard the city did not provide the necessary protection. These failures resulted in immeasurable devastation after the hurricane in areas that extended well beyond the city limits.

The Northeast Blackout of 2003 – which caused the loss of power to 50-60 million people in eight states – clearly illustrates how the power grid is an important part of our nation’s infrastructure. This failure demonstrated that the grid is fragile, lacks redundancy and isn’t resilient enough to withstand a localized failure event. The widespread loss of power had a powerful ripple effect, impacting transportation systems, water supply, and other infrastructure systems.

MuniNet: What types of infrastructure problems have been experienced by on a more localized level?

Leonard: Especially in older cities, we are seeing water line breaks become more common. In Baltimore, for example, a water line break wreaked serious havoc in a local neighborhood. The design life of water lines is usually 50-100 years. Some of our systems are now older than that. And because many systems have very little redundancy, when they fail, it can be devastating, disrupting water to homes and businesses, washing out roads and damaging other types of infrastructure.

The breakdown and deterioration of roads, including potholes, are also typically handled at the local level, financed by local tax dollars. In many instances, when taxpayers vote down a half-cent tax increase, they are unwittingly impacting their own pocketbooks, since poor roads damage their own vehicles and negatively affect their local economy, including its viability to attract businesses and support the job market.

MuniNet: On the flip side, have there been examples of triumphs in the area of public infrastructure?

Leonard: The success stories aren’t as broad or sweeping, but we’ve certainly seen some progress in recent years.

The transportation industry has placed an increased emphasis on traffic safety over the past decade, and the results are now becoming evident. Traffic fatalities are at their lowest levels in fifteen years due to better signage and traffic barriers as well as successful public service campaigns to curtail drunk driving and observe stricter speed limits in construction zones. Likewise, the automotive industry has made great strides in enhancing driver/passenger safety by, for example, making inflatable air bags a standard safety feature in most vehicles.

Another great advancement has been the development and implementation of intelligent transportation systems (ITS), information and communications technology that help measure and manage traffic volumes and better inform the drivers. While we will never be able to build enough roads and highways to eliminate congestion, ITS technologies have greatly increased the efficiency of existing highway systems and provided valuable information to help drivers make informed decisions.

MuniNet: The ASCE Report Card on America’s Infrastructure points to a variety of serious challenges – with no category earning higher than a “C.”  What will it take to turn things around?

Leonard: The “Five Key Solutions” presented on the Report Card website outline strategies that will help increase the state of our infrastructure systems. These solutions involve focused leadership, increased national and regional vision, careful planning for a more resilient future and an increased investment.

MuniNet: How do you characterize the role of federal, state and local government in improving infrastructure?

Leonard: The answer to this question varies somewhat depending on the infrastructure category. The interstate highway system was conceived nationally, funded nationally with some local participation, but the actual roadways were built and are maintained locally. Water and sewer systems tend to be local and regional in scope, built and operated by cities and counties, but regulated by federal guidelines.

Across the board, however, strong federal leadership is a crucial factor in moving forward, with support at the state and local level being equally vital. Consider public schools, which are a very localized infrastructure category. If the federal government were to step in and mandate changes to ensure the safety, functionality and resiliency of every school, for example, change would happen – so long as financing options, including opportunities to receive grants, loans or matching funds, were available for those districts in need.

MuniNet: Fixing these problems requires money, yet the country’s finances are in dire shape as well. Where is the money going to come from to fix America’s infrastructure?

Leonard: Innovative financing has come into play over the past decade as part of the effort to improve infrastructure systems around the country. Design/Build has increased the efficiency and speed of the construction process. Public/private partnerships – or privatization – are also alternatives for building and maintaining some elements of our public infrastructure.

However we pay for it, we must address the needs of the nation’s infrastructure-and the benefits are both broad-ranging and long-lasting.

For every billion dollars our nation invests in highway systems, 30,000 jobs are created or supported – infusing that investment back into the economy. Investment in public infrastructure improvements is worth every dime, not only for the direct benefits to specific roads, schools, bridges and water systems … but also for the advantages that circulate back into the economy – national and local alike. But, the fact still remains that we have been underfunding our vital infrastructure, and our economic future and quality of life requires that we increase the investment.

About the Expert

Blaine D. Leonard, P.E., D.GE, F.ASCE, is 2010 President of the American Society of Civil Engineers and Research Program Manager with the Utah Department of Transportation. Mr. Leonard is a Registered Professional Engineer in Utah, Arizona, California, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado. He has been an active member of the ASCE for many years, serving on a variety of task committees and holding various leadership positions within the organization since the early 1990s.

Prior to joining the Utah Department of Transportation in 2001, Mr. Leonard was affiliated with various engineering consulting firms. He served as an adjunct professor in Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Utah in 2005.

Mr. Leonard holds a Master’s degree in Geotechnical Engineering and a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Utah.