Virginia’s Infrastructure Deficit

Virginia's infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

Virginia’s infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

I have often opined on Virginia’s hidden deficits — fiscal time bombs in the form of budgetary gimmicks, pension under-funding, and deferred infrastructure maintenance. These problems are national in scope, and Virginia has been somewhat less derelict in its duty than other states, but sooner or later the Old Dominion will have an ugly confrontation.

The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card conducted by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) rams home the message. The U.S. overall infrastructure rates a D+ rating. Virginia-specific infrastructure rates a C-. (For whatever reason the 2017 national report card links to the 2015 Virginia report card.)

Here’s a summary of the ASCE’s run-down of major infrastructure categories.

Bridges. Virginia has 20,977 bridges and culverts, and their overall health is in decline due to age and lack of funding. Fifty-six percent are approaching the end of their 40-year anticipated design life. Some 30% are more than 50 years old. In 2013, 23% were found to be either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.  “Available funds are often used to address immediate repair or replacement needs, leaving few remaining funds for preventative maintenance. … The statistics indicate an impending peak of replacements which may be required within the next 10 years.”

Dams. Virginia’s dam inventory continues to grow older and more susceptible to damage. The majority were built in the 1950-75 era, and their average age is 50 years old. Of the state’s high-hazard dams, 45% have conditional certificates, indicating that they do not meet current safety standards. The rehabilitation cost for high- and significant-hazard dams is estimated to be $392 million.

Drinking water. Virginia has 2,830 public water systems supplying drinking water to more than 7 million Virginians. A large number of these systems have passed 70 years in age. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest assessment showed that Virginia waterworks need nearly $6.1 billion over the next 20 years. “Deferral of the necessary improvements has worked so far, but can result in degraded water service, water quality violations, health issues, and higher costs in the future.”

Parks & recreation. Park attendance in Virginia is on the rise, and state parks are consistently ranked as some of the best in the nation. The ASCE commentary vaguely states that “a lack of commitment to adequately fund and maintain our facilities will change things for future generations.”

Rail and transit. The report focuses mainly on the inadequacies of funding for passenger rail, which must share rail lines owned by railroad companies that give their own commercial traffic priority. Virginia did recently set up a Rail Enhancement Fund, and it created an Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund, although it did not actually put any money into the latter. “The current funding is not sufficient to meet the increasing demand for rail and passenger service or to complete the much-needed rail infrastructure improvements and upgrades.”

Roads. The condition of Virginia roads is tolerable from a maintenance and safety standpoint, but traffic congestion in the Washington and Hampton Roads metropolitan areas has a huge negative economic impact. The average Washington-area commuter experiences 74 hours a year of delay. Despite an increase in transportation funding in 2013, “a network that has grown by 14% over the last 35 years and with every dollar buying less construction work, more funding is needed to maintain safe roadways while adding needed capacity, making this a  high priority for Virginia.”

Schools. More than 1,800 public school buildings serve Virginia’s K-12 students. A comprehensive 2013 analysis found that 60% of schools are at least 40 years old. Estimated renovation costs exceed $18 billion for schools more than 30 years old.

Solid waste. Virginia’s solid waste infrastructure is in “good” condition. Increased recycling, a reduction in out-of-state waste, and the addition of 11 additional waste facilities have increased the state’s capacity from 20 years to 22 years.

Stormwater. About one-third of Virginia’s stormwater infrastructure is more than 30 years old, and much of the remainder was built 25 to 30 years ago. Most stormwater infrastructure has a 50- to 100-year lifespan. But the ASCE report is not impressed. “There are shortcomings to address for state-level, standardized reporting, public education, and ensuring a dedicated source of funding commensurate with the economic benefits of a healthy Chesapeake Bay and Virginia ecosystems.”

Wastewater. Virginia has $6.8 billion in wastewater needs over the next 20 years, a 45% increase from ASCE’s previous report card in 2009. That includes $1 billion for combined-sewer overflow, and much  more to achieve Chesapeake Bay clean water standards. “Virginia has made progress with considerable investments and has a comprehensive plan, but has tremendous challenges ahead.”

I don’t share the ASCE’s sense of urgency for every category. If we want to reduce traffic congestion, there are alternatives to building more road and transit projects: (1) reforming land use to provide a better balance of jobs, housing and amenities, and (2) accelerating the Uber-ization of ride sharing in order to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road. I also question whether 40 years is an appropriate standard for rehabilitating or replacing school buildings. Clearly, many schools need rehabbing, but the study may overstate the number.

Even with these caveats, Virginia’s infrastructure deficit runs into the billions of dollars. And this analysis does not address recurrent flooding, an increasing problem in Hampton Roads. On top of all the other issues mentioned above, hardening the region’s infrastructure will cost billions of dollars of dollars more.

Update: Charles Marohn over at the Strong Towns blog eviscerates the ASCE report, which he describes as a “propaganda document.”

The reason why we can’t maintain our infrastructure is not because we lack the money or are afraid to spend it. It is because the systems we have built and the decisions we’ve made on what is a good investment are based on the kind of ridiculous math you see reflected in this ASCE report. We spend a billion here and a billion there and we get nothing but a couple minutes shaved off of our commutes, which just means we can build more roads and live further away from where we work. (Or, as we call that here in America: growth.)

Sixty years of unproductive infrastructure spending later, we are awash in maintenance liabilities with no money to pay for them. This is what happens when you have a government-subsidized, Ponzi-scheme growth system that, at all times, lives for the next transaction. America is all about new growth, which is why we don’t even bother to question the findings in a study like this.

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9 responses to “Virginia’s Infrastructure Deficit

  1. My response to this regular report, and the headlines it generates, is: gee, this is hopeless. Why even bother to think about it. The entire national economy couldn’t generate enough dollars to satisfy all these concerns. Go turn on Netflix and wait patiently for the end…..I mean really, what do you expect a bunch of engineers to promote but more….engineering! (Said by the son and father of engineers…)

    The proper response should be, look at how much of the current capital budget is dedicated to repair and replace, and double it. Less new stuff, more maintenance for the aging stuff. If you need new stuff make sure it really is needed and be sure to build the lifecycle cost into your plans. I have a cousin who works for a company that uses new techniques to put brand new flexible lining in very old water mains, reducing leaks, blocking lead corrosion, improving pressure and greatly extending the lifespan of these supposedly decrepit systems. Far, far cheaper than digging them up for replacement. I suspect the technique didn’t even exist ten years ago….

    • To build on your note above, it’s also possible to embed water systems with sensors that precisely identify the location of leaks. That way water authorities can focus their efforts on fixing the leaks that are costing the most money — hopefully using the kind of cost-effective technology that your cousin provides.

      I agree that the ASCE might be overblowing the size and scope of the infrastructure crisis — they want the country to spend more money on engineers — and that there may be less expensive solutions that ASCE hasn’t considered. But they’re not making it all up. We are running an infrastructure deficit.

  2. Part of our legacy of building roads and transit for economic development – which really is enriching well-connected landowners by enabling them to develop their landholdings.

  3. Gee what happened to the cost of cleaning up coal ash and modernizing the electricity grid?

    but this has a familiar ring to it… sung to the tune of ” govt always taxes and spends too much and incompetently deals with maintenance and replacement.. and we can’t increase taxes to pay for these needs because that just makes life even more intolerable.. and we’re all gonna die… .. a horrible death…. from
    government-titis… Steve hears the same tune!

    • Not so. My understanding is that European countries are more disciplined about budgeting for infrastructure maintenance than we are. I can’t cite chapter and verse, so I can’t prove it. But the larger point is that government is not intrinsically negligent. It just so happens that in the United States government tends to be negligent. Moreover, some states are clearly more short-sighted and negligent than others.

      • Very true. As I’ve posted before, a LOT (apologies to President Trump) of this problem stems from “core services” becoming a talking point in the past few decades.

        And guess what is ALWAYS the number one “core service”? Public safety. And then schools. They get any and everything they want at the local and state level when it comes to budgets, both capital and operating.

        Their budgets get inflated and routine maintenance and infrastructure gets shorted. It’s a very vicious cycle. If we want to have a serious conversation about this issue, we need to turn infrastructure and maintenance into a “core service.” But alas, infrastructure isn’t sexy compared to “cops arresting bad guys” and “teachers and kids.”

  4. Good LORD! You can’t possibly mean those countries that invest in passenger rail and have universal health care and are characterized as “socialist”.. can you?

  5. If the cost projections I’ve seen in engineering reports here are any indication, we’re spending a lot more money than necessary to do the wrong things.

    There’s been a shocking dearth of common sense in grant-funded studies by engineers that influence Commonwealth agency decisions. Laptops can only spit out what’s been input, and too often, real world conditions aren’t part of the equation. Water still won’t run uphill, even if an engineering company believes bad LiDAR elevations or reads a map incorrectly.

  6. Most dams in Va are private dams… more than a few are associated with gated communities… rather than in-the-rivers Govt dams…

    second – in 46 other states the State DOT is not responsible for county roads.

    Only in Va, NC, Texas and Alaska does the State DOT have this responsibility.

    In the 46 other states – the counties themselves (or towns or townships) bear that responsibility. Even in Va , two counties, and 33 cities and towns bear that responsibility.

    The state level roads and of course the interstates are the responsibility of VDOT wherever they are in county or town/city.

    In the 46 other states – you will see the county has a line item for it’s own roads or they have a separate road commission that levies taxes for roads.

    In many of those states – developments roads are HOA … and then roads that connect HOA/private roads to state roads are county roads.

    In Virginia – VDOT has programs to help the counties if they have more maintenance issues with higher costs than their normal allocations but in the end – VDOT has to balance how to fairly allocate equitably to all the counties in Va.

    here’s the FHWA standard for county road signs across the country. Some folks may recognize them.

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