American Society of Civil Engineers: Not Just a Tough Grader

By James A. Kearns
Within the U.S. inland waterways industry, any mention of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) will almost certainly be in reference to the “Infrastructure Report Card” that ASCE prepares and issues every four years, describing the condition and performance of America’s infrastructure in 16 categories: aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, public parks, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit and waste water. It is a major effort, with many ASCE members investing a great deal of time and hard work in collecting and analyzing data and then putting it all together in a format that is both informative and easily understandable. The end results are presented in the form of letter grades as on a familiar school report card.
Inland Report Card
It has typically not been a pretty picture, and this year’s Report Card was no exception. Most infrastructure categories in this year’s Report Card received grades of D or D+. A few categories received grades of C+. The nation’s rail infrastructure was at the head of the class with a grade of B. ASCE is not at much risk of being accused of grade inflation.
The inland waterways infrastructure was among those categories receiving a grade of D. Sadly, this was actually good news, since the last Report Card four years ago gave the inland waterways infrastructure a grade of D–. The low grade given to the inland waterways infrastructure in the ASCE Report Card is based primarily on the aging and unreliable system of locks and dams on the inland waterways and on the need for increased and more consistent funding to rehabilitate existing locks and dams and to construct new and larger locks to handle modern tow sizes. The low grade in the ASCE Report Card, and the factors on which it is based, is frequently cited in testimony before Congress, on editorial pages, in the trade press, and in presentations by industry members to anyone who will listen, as evidence of the urgent need for more attention and funding to be given to the inland waterways infrastructure.
More than Grades
But ASCE is a society of engineers, and engineers are not content to simply point out a problem and then wait for others to do something about it. Their DNA requires that, when faced with a problem, they will attempt to solve it. While the gloomy conclusions of the ASCE Report Card are well known, what is not nearly so well known is what ASCE is doing to address the problems. With regard to the nation’s waterways, in 2000 ASCE created the Coasts, Oceans, Ports, and Rivers Institute (COPRI). As stated on its website, COPRI serves both its membership and society at large “by uniting the disciplines working to sustainably develop, protect and restore coasts, oceans, ports, waterways, rivers and wetlands; integrating the key stakeholders into decision making processes; advancing technological state of art and practice; and influencing public policy.”
This lofty goal is implemented on a practical level by several committees within COPRI, one of which is the Waterways Committee, which in turn has a Subcommittee dedicated to “Alternative Financing for Waterways Infrastructure.” The Subcommittee’s operating premise is that it is not realistic to rely solely on Congress for the funds necessary to raise the inland waterways infrastructure to a grade higher than D. The Subcommittee has been active, therefore, in exploring and advocating for alternative sources of funding.
Among those initiatives have been several workshops conducted throughout the country during 2015 and 2016. The author spoke at one of these workshops in St. Paul, Minn. in September 2016, at which there were more than 90 attendees, representing the engineering and construction industry, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, waterway operators and users, financial institutions, concessionaires, Congressional staff, port authorities and other stakeholders. A follow-up workshop was held in April of this year in Oakland, Calif.
After the St. Paul workshop, Roundtables on Alternative Financing were held in October and December 2016, organized by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Management, in partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies. Several members of the COPRI Subcommittee took part in these Roundtables. From these Roundtables, the Ash Center issued a report in January of this year, “Tapping Private Financing and Delivery to Modernize America’s Federal Water Resources.”
ASCE in Action
In June of this year, the COPRI Subcommittee organized a separate meeting with staff of the Army Corps of Engineers at its headquarters. The goals of this meeting were, first, to identify the specific statutory provisions that the Corps views as limiting its ability to use alternative approaches to financing improvements to the inland waterways infrastructure and, second, to explore with the Corps the statutory authorizations that would give the Corps more flexibility in this regard. This initiative was undertaken to take advantage of the bipartisan support that development of the nation’s water resources continues to enjoy within Congress, as evidenced by the passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 and the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 included in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act. The passage of these two Acts offers hope that there will continue to be Congressional action to address the needs of waterways infrastructure every two years, with corresponding opportunities to facilitate the use of alternative financing approaches to meet those needs.
The COPRI Subcommittee’s work in exploring alternative financing of waterways infrastructure through its own workshops, through the participation of its members in the Roundtables organized by the Ash Center, and through other efforts of its members, has culminated in a report prepared by a COPRI Task Committee published earlier this year, “Alternative Financing and Delivery of Waterways Infrastructure”. The Task Committee was originally established by COPRI in 2015 to evaluate the public-private partnership authorization included in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014. The scope of the final report, however, is much broader: it examines the use of alternative financing generally in support of water resources within the context of the civil works program of the Army Corps of Engineers. The report contains specific and detailed recommendations to enable the use of alternative financing methods to address the infrastructure needs highlighted in the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card. Key constraints are identified, and then specific legislative, regulatory, or administrative solutions to these constraints are offered. Precedents in support of these proposed solutions are provided, where available. To adopt a waterways metaphor, there are obstacles in the channel to be sure, but the COPRI report is a useful guide for removing them or navigating around them.
Although ASCE is most often identified only with the low grade given in its Infrastructure Report when the needs of the inland waterways infrastructure are being discussed, it would be a disservice to the society and to the solution-minded engineers who are its members to overlook the many contributions that they are making – with far less fanfare – to meeting those needs.
The Author
James A. Kearns has represented owners, operators, financial institutions and end users for more than 30 years in the purchase, construction and financing of vessels engaged in both foreign and coastwise trades of the United States. Kearns has earned an LL.M. (in Taxation) from New York University, J.D. cum laude from the University of Notre Dame, and a B.S.E.E., summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame.
(As published in the September 2017 edition of Marine News)
Marine News Magazine, page 18,  Sep 2017

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