Virginia gets D+ on infrastructure

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires

Virginia might be known as the No. 1 state for business, but its infrastructure nearly flunked a recent inspection.
In a first-ever report card on the condition of Virginia’s public assets,  the Virginia section of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state an overall grade of D+.

That’s slightly better than the D earned by the U. S. as a whole in a national assessment by the same educational group. 
While Virginia has invested in recent years in things like parks and mass transit, the report spelled out critical weaknesses in other areas that could pose safety hazards.  “We’re not here to paint a doomsday scenario, but to capture a snapshot,” said Thomas L. Fitzgerald, Virginia section president.  “… We must update and prioritize our infrastructure plans.”

A year in the making, the 2009 Report Card on Virginia’s Infrastructure examined 13 categories of assets. The state’s dams and roads got the lowest grades, a D-, while parks and recreation snagged the highest grade, a B-.

The group nearly assigned an “F” to dams, Fitzgerald said, since many are not compliant with new safety regulations enacted in 2008. According to the report, as many as 50,000 people live in downstream communities or so-called   “dam break inundation zones” of non-compliant dams. The cost to improve Virginia’s dams to meet minimum safety standards could be as high as $220 million, the group said. That cost could double to accommodate 1,400 additional dams that moved under the state’s safety program as a result of the new regulations. 
The upshot, the report says, is that the state’s Division of Dam Safety “currently does not have enough staff or funding to manage the existing regulated structures and the additional requirements … have only exacerbated this problem.”  A spokesman for the division could not be reached for comment.

Also getting a D- was the state’s road system, the third largest in the country. Due to big drops in state revenues, the Virginia Department of Transportation already has suffered massive budget cuts that have gutted highway construction and maintenance programs. While some of the state’s $1 billion in federal stimulus funds is going for highway projects, it isn’t enough to stem a backlog of needed maintenance, said Fitzgerald.

“We realize that Virginia’s pavements are deteriorating,” said Britt Drewes, VDOT’s assistant director of public affairs.”... What it boils down to is that the funding needs exceed our budget. We have made it a priority with the stimulus money. It’s something that we are trying to address the best that we can with the funding that we have.” 

Asked if something catastrophic such as a bridge collapse or dam break could happen in Virginia, Jake A. Keller, a national technical director of civil engineering for Parsons Brinckerhoff in Norfolk who headed up the roads portion of the report card, replied, “It hasn’t happened, yet. We want to act before anything happens. To wait is not acceptable.”  By coming out with a public report card, the non-profit engineers group said it hopes to start a dialog with the state’s policy makers. 

To improve infrastructure, Fitzgerald says Virginia needs a sustained source of funding. User fees, public-private partnerships and the use of innovative technology to affect demand for some assets could all be tapped in coming up with a funding solution, he said.  To see a summary of the report card, follow this link.  A full report with complete source citation will be available in January.


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