Making progress

15 March 2021

There are now around 9.5m fewer jobs in the US than before the pandemic. President Biden is planning to rebuild American infrastructure at a time of profound national crisis when he could have been forgiven for concentrating on a stimulus package which prioritised unemployment, coronavirus vaccines, childcare and other pressing social issues.

Thanks to some last-minute tweaks, the Democrats have managed to push through the House a US$1.9tr stimulus package bill which – at the time we went to press – was being debated in the Senate and likely to have been passed by the time you read this. It incorporates new infrastructure spending that will see money flow to cash-strapped cities and states grappling with a repair backlog.

Biden and the democrats are intent on injecting trillions of dollars into road, bridge, utilities, and broadband upgrades as part of an effort to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Biden is known as an enthusiastic Amtrak rider (he was a regular commuter at one time) and has already made the Hudson Tunnel project – which the Trump administration had effectively blocked – eligible for federal funding, in effect, giving it the green light.

But it’s not all good news. In its latest quadrennial assessment of US infrastructure, the ASCE has given US infrastructure an overall ‘C-minus’, rating it as in ‘mediocre’ condition, and ‘in need of attention’. But this is still an improvement – it is the first time in 20 years that US infrastructure has climbed out of the D-grade doldrums.

The overall grade is an average of 17 individual category grades which span sectors such as rail, bridges, roads, transit, drinking water, stormwater and wastewater – to name a few. Sadly, there is no ‘Tunnels’ category. Indeed, the word ‘tunnels’ appears just once in the report, under ‘Transit’, where 6% are rated as in ‘poor’ condition. So, although the Report Card is an exemplar of conciseness and clarity, it does not give an overall picture of the state of the nation’s tunnels as it does for other categories. Readers must assume that tunnel infrastructure is subsumed under other categories, such as ‘Roads’ and ‘Rail’, although there is no mention of them there.

The ASCE committee is made of 31 civil engineers with vast experience of infrastructure. I am aware of numerous, highly skilled US tunnel engineers who could sit on that board and help give us a clearer picture of tunnel infrastructure. Given the critical function that tunnels have in the smooth functioning of a society, is it not time that the ASCE instigated a separate ‘Tunnels’ category for its forthcoming report card due to be published in 2025?