District's Roads, Transit Score Badly in Engineers' Report

Roads are among the worst parts of Washington, D.C.’s transportation infrastructure, while the bridges that connect them are in better condition, according to a report on the city’s infrastructure released Thursday by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The transit system and levees protecting the city from floods also scored badly.

The district’s infrastructure is mediocre overall and close to falling into the “at risk” category, according to the group’s first “Report Card for D.C.’s Infrastructure.” The District fared better than the national average, but it’s nothing to celebrate, the group said.

“We should be really a model in Washington, D.C. We are fortunate that we have the federal government here and federal resources,” said Christian Manalo, vice chairman of the ASCE committee that put together the D.C. report. “You would think that, you know, the infrastructure would be in better condition than it is. But it needs a lot more.”

Engineers gave an overall grade of C- in their assessment of 11 categories. Bridges and rail fared best, with grades of B-, while roads, levees, and transit scored lowest, with varying D grades.

D.C. is ahead of the nation, which received a grade of D+ in 2013, the last year a national report card was issued. ASCE puts out a national infrastructure report every four years.

Manalo said that D.C.’s grade is comparable to neighboring Maryland and Virginia, which also have gotten an overall rating of C- from the group in past years.

This isn’t good news for commuters sitting on the Beltway banging their heads against steering wheels. On the bright side, bridge conditions and water infrastructure are improving, according to the report.

The report card was unveiled outside the First Street Tunnel project, an effort by DC Water, the district's water and sewer authority, that is designed to reduce flooding and control sewer overflows. The District’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure both earned grades of C+. Solid waste infrastructure also scored a C+.

George S. Hawkins, CEO and general manager of DC Water, said at a press conference Thursday that a C+ grade was “not acceptable,” but added, “it’s the trend that matters more than an individual point.” Hawkins said the water agency had improved its pipe replacement schedule from one-third of 1 percent per year to 1 percent per year.

“Each day, each year, we’re going to get better,” Hawkins said.

Bridges and Roads

ASCE said that to keep roads in current conditions – drivers sit in traffic some 204 million hours a year – the District’s transportation department would need to quadruple its maintenance budget. And with growth projected to put more cars on the road driving more miles, the engineers' group predicted hours of delay from sitting in traffic will increase 43 percent by 2040.

Bridges have been shaping up, however. Engineers said the 265 bridges in the network have an average age of 58 years, but the District’s transportation department was praised for reducing the percentage of structurally deficient ones, from 8 to 3 percent in just three years. But trouble lies ahead, with some 80 percent of bridges estimated to be at or beyond the typical bridge lifespan, meaning replacements will be needed in the future, the report said.

Transit and Rail

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s safety slip-ups in 2015 contributed to a low mark of D for transit, though engineers gave a nod to Metro’s six-year, $5 billion investment plan that has led to more track and bus improvements. Inconsistent funding and maintenance continue to cause concerns for the agency and its riders. Public transit in the region faces an estimated $16 billion funding shortfall over the next 10 years, the report noted.

Rail, on the other hand, got a grade of B-, with mention of some $25 million already invested by freight giant CSX on rail upgrades, with $200 million more planned to double the Virginia Avenue rail tunnel’s capacity.

Levees in Trouble

Levee infrastructure got the lowest grade of all categories in the report, with a D-. Engineers noted that the two levee systems both have an unacceptable safety rating from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and neither has been accredited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Manalo said federal agencies are responsible for repairing those levee systems: one near the Washington mall downtown and another protecting the Joint Base Anacostia Bolling facility and the surrounding area in Southeast Washington. Both systems are designed to protect against flooding.

“A lot of what’s unique about DC and this infrastructure report card is it is reflective of federal investment because the federal agencies here are responsible and own the infrastructure,” Manalo said.

Should residents be concerned about the levees? A D grade, after all, reflects infrastructure at risk.

“This is not New Orleans, but when you have a major flood and climate change, who knows for the future what may happen,” Manalo said.

Energy, Schools and Parks

The District’s energy, schools and parks categories got grades in the C range. Schools got a C-, with engineers taking note of $1.5 billion spent since 2008 to renovate old schools and construct new ones, but noted that more than 14,000 students in the district’s public school system are attending schools “considered in moderately high need of facility condition improvements.”

Energy fared slightly better with a C grade. The report noted old pipelines and overhead feeders susceptible to storm damage.

Parks got a C+. Though the district has one of the highest ratios of park acres to citizens in the country, much of it is in disrepair. ASCE said more than 50 percent of the District’s open space “has challenges,” meaning recreation facilities were listed as being in fair or poor condition.

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