On Thursday, March 31, the Alabama Section of ASCE unveiled its 2022 Report Card for Alabama’s Infrastructure, the state’s first report card since 2015. The report assigned the state’s systems a cumulative grade of “C-”, which is on par with the national grade of “C-“ and the same grade the state received in its 2015 report. A “C-” grade means the state’s infrastructure is in mediocre condition and requires attention.
The report analyzes 12 categories of infrastructure pertinent to Alabama: aviation (C), bridges (C+), dams (Incomplete), drinking water (C-), energy (B), inland waterways (D), ports (B), rail (B), roads (C-), stormwater (D+), transit (C-) and wastewater (D). Alabama Report Card co-chair Joe Meads, P.E., presented the findings in the report to an in-person audience at the Alabama Department of Archives & History in Montgomery, AL. Alabama Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth and state Senator Clyde Chambliss, who is also an engineer and ASCE member, provided remarks about the state of infrastructure in Alabama.
Alabama has taken significant steps to improve its infrastructure systems. The 2019 Rebuild Alabama Actincreased the state’s gas tax by 10 cents, creating an estimated $320 million in new funding per year for Alabama’s roads and bridges, which led to each receiving significant grade increases from the 2015 report, as roads improved from a “D+” to a “C-“ and bridges improved from a “C-“ to a “C+”. This investment has resulted in an additional 9,000 jobs and played a part in Alabama’s improving bridge conditions, as the percentage rated in ‘poor’ condition has dropped dramatically from 8.6% in 2015 to 3.8% currently, half the national average. Rebuild Alabama, along with the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation Improvement Program (ATRIP), implemented a combined 141 widening, resurfacing, repair, remediation, lane additions, lane extensions, intersection improvements, and more projects for the state’s roads between 2020 and 2021.
Despite these improvements, Alabama’s surface transportation network was facing such significant funding shortages that ATRIP and Rebuild Alabama have mostly kept the system afloat and additional resources are needed to get these systems to satisfactory conditions. Future roadway needs are projected to cost nearly $37 billion by 2035, while ALDOT will need to spend more than triple the current annual funding level over the next 10 years to maintain current bridge condition levels. Luckily, an infusion of federal investment from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will lessen these funding gaps.
Energy (B), ports (B) and rail (B), each of which playing a massive role in economic stability, received the highest grades in the report. Alabama consumes roughly the same amount of energy as it produces and the network has grown to be more resilient to withstand increasingly severe weather events; the state ranks 6th in the nation for total net electricity generation. The Rebuild Alabama Act included $150 million for ports, while the Alabama State Port authority has spent $1.4 billion on channel improvements since 2002. The Port of Mobile is the 11th largest single deep-water port in the U.S. by volume and the Container Terminal is the nation’s fastest growing container terminal. The Port Authority’s total economic value is $25.4 billion, with the sector providing more than 150,000 jobs.
Unfortunately, water systems in the state are lagging behind. Dams received an ‘Incomplete’ grade again in this report, just like it did in the section’s 2015 report, as Alabama still is the only state in the U.S. without a dam safety program, which disqualifies itself from accessing federal infrastructure funds for inspections, training, and rehabilitation. Based on estimates by Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), the US Army Corp. of Engineers (USACE) and other sources, the National Inventory of Dams shows that Alabama has 226 high hazard potential dams (HHPD), meaning if they were to fail it would lead to loss of life or significant property damage. Through a grant from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), ADECA has made progress on preparing an inventory of dams in Alabama, but more funding is needed for ADECA to perform onsite surveys, inspections, or assessments.
The state’s water systems are severely underfunded and, as a result, their conditions have deteriorated. Inland waterways (D) and wastewater (D) received the lowest grades in the report. Lack of funding has led to deferred maintenance of the state’s inland waterways, causing these structures to be unavailable for commercial traffic, slowing down the shipment of commodities and hindering the economy. Two of the state’s locks have been completely closed to traffic due to poor conditions and 12 of the 16 locks were built more than 50 years ago. Alabama’s wastewater systems have more than $3 billion in needs over the next 15 years. One quarter of the state’s septic tanks are failing, and utility rates are just two-thirds the national average, proving inadequate for improving and maintaining these systems. At least 50% of the state’s wastewater infrastructure – including treatment systems and conveyance networks – needs expansion.
The report also includes calls to action to raise the grades, including the recommendation for the state to establish a dam safety program to inspect the condition of the state’s dams and create a revolving grant or loan program to rehabilitate and repair dams in need.