On Wednesday, February 23, the Alaska Section of ASCE unveiled preliminary findings from the 2021 Report Card for Alaska’s Infrastructure, the section’s first report card since 2017. 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 2017 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 Alaska: aviation (C), bridges (B-), dams (C), drinking water (D), energy (C-), marine highways (D), ports and harbors (D+), rail (C), roads (C), solid waste (C), transit (B-) and wastewater (D). ASCE Alaska Section past-president David Gamez, section treasurer Doug Simon, and Anchorage Section board member Dan Nichols presented the findings alongside Alaska DOT Commissioner Ryan Anderson and AML Executive Director Nils Andreassen.
You can’t tackle Alaskan infrastructure without first considering the extreme weather and geographical challenges its residents face. Its infrastructure needs to be up to the task, whether it must deal with seismic events, permafrost, shore erosion, avalanches, and varying temperatures reaching low extremes and new record highs. Nonetheless, the state has consistently maintained its transportation infrastructure, solid waste and energy sectors despite these omnipresent environmental threats. However, some sectors such as drinking water, wastewater, and Alaska’s marine highways have fallen behind due to a lack of funding to keep up with current and future needs.
Future improvements to Alaska’s bridges (B-) and roads (C) are hindered by the state’s 8 cents per gallon gas tax, the lowest rate in the nation and one which hasn’t been adjusted since 1970. While this lack of revenue jeopardizes long-term plans, each sector is performing adequately at the moment, partially due to factors such as low population growth and relatively low traffic congestion. Pavement conditions have improved too, as 15.6% of Alaskan roadways were in poor condition in 2015, and just 8.1% were in poor condition in 2018. The same is true of bridges. Roughly 9.5% of the state’s bridges were in poor condition in 2015 compared to just 7% today, lower than the national average of 7.5%. Both sectors fared favorably when challenged by seismic events and avalanches.
Mass transit (B), which received the highest grade in the report, provides service to all of Alaska’s urban areas, or 72% of the state’s population – quite a feat given the geographical challenges of hosting reliable transit in Alaska. Each community system serves a diverse array of riders using multiple modes of transit. Across the state, transit is reliant upon annual funding from federal, state, and local governments, as the collection of passenger fares, profit from advertisements, and private donations only cover part of the costs.
Drinking water, wastewater, and marine highways each received a ‘D’ grade, the lowest in the report, due to insufficient funding mechanisms. The drinking water sector faces an estimated $1 billion funding need over the next 20 years, with an average of more than $80 million per year needed over the next decade, while only about 10% of that total is available through existing programs. Residents in 32 rural communities do not have in-home piped water or a community watering point and must haul water. Even residents in mid-size cities struggle with drinking water and sanitation services. In Bethel, a regional economic and administrative hub, 68% of residents lack piped water and sewer service, relying instead on truck-hauled service. Urban communities in Alaska have wastewater systems similar to those in cities across the US, funded primarily by user fees and/or local taxes and periodically receive state and federal funding; however, rural communities vary between centralized sewer to no service at all. In 2019, Alaska ranked last among all 50 states for the percentage of its citizens receiving complete sanitation, which includes a flush toilet, shower or bath, and a kitchen sink.
The report also includes calls to action to raise the grades, such as:
- Have a plan and fund for the future. All infrastructure owners and operators should create and fund capital replacement plans for both immediate and long-term needs.
- Prioritize maintenance. Regular maintenance keeps costs down and the economy moving. Sometimes it’s all about the basics.
- Innovate as we replace. This means Alaska must support and encourage innovative solutions to infrastructure funding.