Four years after their last "report card" on the condition of the nation’s most critical infrastructure, U.S. civil engineers say, not surprisingly, that the situation is generally getting worse. In a new report released March 9, the American Society of Civil Engineers dropped its overall grade for U.S. infrastructure to "D" from "D+" in 2001.

"We need to establish a comprehensive, long-term infrastructure plan as opposed to our current ‘patch-and-pay’ method," says ASCE President William P. Henry, who also is marketing manager in Seattle for Schaaf & Wheeler Consulting Civil Engineers. The report adds three new infrastructure categories–security, rail and parks and recreation–to the 12 it has reviewed since its first survey in 1998. Some categories have eked out a better rating since 2001, but others are edging down toward failure (see chart).

Two categories of transportation infrastructure worsened in 2005, with officials pointing to the snail’s pace of new federal transportation funding legislation moving through Congress (see p. 16). Roads declined to a D rating from D+ while transit dropped to D+ from C-. However, ASCE says bridges managed to hold a steady grade and aviation actually improved slightly with increased federal spending.

Officials worry about slipping grades for drinking water and energy infrastructure. "We consider this a small leak," says C. Michael Walton, head of the ASCE council that produced the report and a University of Texas-Austin civil engineering professor. "If we don’t invest now, we’ll have a bigger problem later."

Walton notes the debut this year of security as a separate infrastructure category, a repercussion of the 9/11 terror attacks. He says it received a grade of "incomplete" because of the still unfolding national response to security risks. "We were not able to get the necessary information necessary to provide a meaningful estimate of what the grade would be," he says. Walton expects a more detailed review infrastructure security in ASCE’s interim report in 2007 and its next full-scale report card two years later.

Walton says the report card is based on assessments by 25 public and private sector infrastructure experts, including Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering and Construction Chief Donald Basham; Jeannette A. Brown, executive director of the Stamford, Conn., Water Pollution Control Authority; and Tom Warne, a transportation consultant and former executive director of the Utah state highway department.

Walton says ASCE is not now releasing a plan to fix the infrastructure problem, "but we’re hoping to work with Congressional staff to provide leadership."