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Grading Alaska’s Infrastructure

Grades. The bane of many students—and teachers—are benchmarks for where you are and where you need to improve to get where you want to be. And students aren’t the only ones getting grades these days. The Alaska Section of the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) has also been busy grading the state’s infrastructure.

Civil engineers used their expertise and school report card-style letter grades to condense complicated data into an easy-to-understand analysis of Alaska’s infrastructure network. ASCE State and Regional Infrastructure Report Cards are modeled after the national Infrastructure Report Card, which gave America’s infrastructure an overall grade of ‘C-’ in 2021.  

The preliminary findings from the 2021 Report Card for Alaska’s Infrastructure, with the full report slated to be released later in 2022,gave 12 categories of infrastructure an overall grade of a ‘C-’ meaning the state’s infrastructure is in mediocre condition and requires attention. Of course, the vast expanse of the nation’s largest state makes the survey difficult, but ASCE knows what it’s doing.

Alaska has consistently maintained its transportation infrastructure, solid waste, and energy sectors despite constant environmental threats, seismic events, permafrost, and shore erosion. 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. Civil engineers graded 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).

According to David Gamez, co-chair for the group, “Our systems and state agencies have demonstrated commendable resilience in the face of seismic events and other natural disasters. Unfortunately, we face many other threats, ranging from shore erosion to permafrost, major temperature fluctuations, and avalanches. We must keep our foot on the gas to address current and future challenges to prevent power outages, road closures, suspended drinking water services, and many more vital services.”

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 currently performing adequately, partially due to factors such as low population growth and relatively low traffic congestion. Pavement conditions have improved, 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. Each community system serves a diverse array of riders using multiple modes of transit. Across the state, transit relies on 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.

Alaska’s drinking water, wastewater, and marine highways each received a ‘D’ grade, the lowest in the report, due to insufficient funding mechanisms. The state’s 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 like those in cities across the country, funded primarily by user fees and/or local taxes and periodically receiving 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.

Focusing on marine highways, the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) is the State’s publicly owned ferry system, which is vital for connecting coastal communities or remote areas. Scarce funding and lack of a long-term capital improvement program are causing reduced maintenance and, therefore, reduced service. Of the 10 vessels in the AMHS fleet, three vessels are over 50 years old and three over 40 years old.

The more than 30% budget reduction from FY2019 to FY 2020 significantly reduced the operational capacity of AMHS. Vessels were put out of service or laid up for service without funds to make the necessary repairs. However, AMHS is making positive changes to address these issues, including a shift to operating with 18-month budgets to provide more operational stability. The proposed budget will increase for operation and maintenance costs in future fiscal years.

The state is also investing in a replacement vessel for M/V Tustemena, one of the oldest vessels in the fleet. Built in 1964, the M/V Tustumena is the smallest AMHS vessel with cabins and is one of only two certified ocean class ferries in the AMHS fleet. It is designed to carry 160 passengers and has a vehicle capacity of 680 linear feet, which is equal to approximately 34 twenty-foot vehicles. 

Like good teachers everywhere, the report also includes calls to action to raise the grades, such as:

The Report Card was created as a public service to citizens and policymakers to inform them of the infrastructure needs in their state.

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