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Puerto Rico's grades are below average said ASCE. (GFR Media)
Puerto Rico's grades are below average said ASCE. (GFR Media)

Puerto Rico earned a "D-" in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2019 report card, which was released yesterday.

ASCE evaluated eight infrastructure categories on the island, and the energy grid earned a failing grade of F, which did not seem to surprise the ASCE.

"Energy infrastructure is critical and does not meet the needs of the people. After Hurricane María, the focus was to re-energize the island as quickly as possible, but the system lacks resilient and sustainable characteristics," said engineer Héctor Colón de la Cruz, president of ASCE Chapter in Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico infrastructure report card chairman. 

Colón de la Cruz added that "the system is fragile, there are frequent interruptions, and costs will probably continue to increase. Investment in the system must come hand in hand with public policies and regulations that are in line with the industry," the engineer added.  

The other categories evaluated are bridges ("D+"), dams ("D+"), wastewater ("D+"), drinking water systems ("D"), ports ("D"), road networks ("D-") and solid waste operations ("D-").

Colón de la Cruz stressed that this is the first time that the ASCE evaluates and releases results for Puerto Rico. More than 30 people, including engineers and members of nonprofit organizations, agencies, and private companies, worked on the development of the report. The work consisted of  analysing investment in the eight categories over the last two decades.

"The purpose of our work is to help Puerto Rico improve (its infrastructure). This document can serve as a crucial tool for the government, the Legislative Assembly, the private sector and citizens so that we understand what can be done to improve infrastructure," he said.

"Infrastructure is the foundation of any country. Without that, our economy is affected, as well as the quality of life," he added, noting that these dire grades prove that the infrastructure on the island is in "poor condition" and shows "significant deterioration."

The ASCE gave the U.S. infrastructure a "D+" in 2017 therefore, Puerto Rico's grades are below average.

Particular Findings

The report concluded that much of the local infrastructure is reaching the end of its lifespan and that the grids are still being rebuilt after Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017.

For the ASCE the infrastructure for water and hydraulic systems is really concerning. According to the report, “during the year 2018, 65,697 leaks and breakswere reported, for an average of 4.38 leaks or breaks per mile of installed line,” that is 180 leaks per day.

In addition, the report adds that “of the state-regulated dams, 36 are high-hazard potential (97 percent). A high-hazard potential classification indicates that dam failure or misoperation would likely result in loss of life and significant economic damages.” And the storage capacity of the dams has been reduced to between 40 percent and 60 percent due to the accumulation of sediments.

"We know what happened at the Guajataca Dam with Hurricane María. Dams are viable for us, not only because they store water, but also because we have the possibility of producing hydroelectric energy. But the dams need a lot of investment to bring them to optimum conditions," said Colón de la Cruz.

He stressed that the Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA) loses 58 percent of the water it produces due to physical and commercial failures, which, in his opinion, increases the possibilities of water rationing.

As for wastewater, the engineer explained that PRASA owns and operates 51 wastewater treatment plants, 5,300 miles of sewer lines, and 824 wastewater pumping stations. He added that the island population has declined since 2010, leaving fewer rate payers to fund necessary projects in PRASA.

The report concluded that only 19 percent of Puerto Rico’s bridges are in good condition. According to Colón de la Cruz, 81 percent of the island´s bridges are in poor or fair conditions. "It does not mean that they are going to collapse, but it does mean that investment is needed to improve them. The good news is that there is a 10-year improvement plan, but it requires a lot of money and that those funds are secured," he said.

The study also found that Irma and María aggravated the already fragile port infrastructure and reduced the capacity of landfills.

 Investment required

 The report concluded that the island needs to raise investments by $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion annually to achieve a modern system capable of supporting economic growth and competitiveness.

"Puerto Rico has historically underinvested in infrastructure. At least over the next 10 years, we must invest an additional $13 billion to what we are investing now," Colón de la Cruz said.

He said, however, that when considering maintenance and hurricane-related recovery projects, the investment gap "can and should" be higher. He said the current situation represents an opportunity to fund projects by combining federal, state, and private sector funds.

"We are not here to criticize (the state of) the infrastructure, the agencies or the people who have worked with it. We are here for Puerto Rico to improve. Ourmission is to provide a document that serves as a basis for developing public policy," he insisted.

 The report also mentions the budgetary limitations that the Oversight Board imposes on the government under PROMESA.

Recommendations

Colón de la Cruz and ASCE Board member Brian Mckeehan agreed that the reports show the opportunities for resilient reconstruction.

The report also focuses on the importance of rebuilding following appropriate codes and standards; reaching different sources of funding, and incorporating resilience into plans through the use of climate-resistant materials. "Our future depends not only on an infrastructure that protects us from disasters but also facilitates recovery," said Colón de la Cruz.

Another recommendation on the report is to develop a long-term "robust and complete" infrastructure plan which would be designed by a committee made up of experts in the field, facility owners, agencies, nonprofits, and the private sector, among others, who would set priorities with specific goals and objectives.

Senate Vice President Larry Seilhamer, who is an engineer, said that he will introduce legislation in Congress to implement this recommendation. He said he will seek the support of partisan minorities so that the measure that will he eventually submit "survives"  political changes.

For Seilhamer, improving infrastructure is directly proportional to the island's quality of life and economic growth and therefore, public policy should be designed following the input of the sectors involved and stressed that the ASCE has made a very good analysis of these eight categories.

The report also recommends planning and implementing a "complete system" of maintenance and asset management databases. In Colón de la Cruz's opinion, the lack of maintenance is partly responsible for the fact that much of the infrastructure is reaching the end of its lifespan.

The engineer said that another problem is that infrastructure managers and owners lack resources and personnel with technical knowledge. "If we manage to have those resources, Puerto Rico´s infrastructure can also improve," Seilhamer said.

Meanwhile, Mckeehan said that the ASCE published a series of codes and standards for grids design and construction, which can be used to rebuild the island's power grid. "We hope grades will improve in next reports," he said and specified that the ASCE evaluates a total of 16 infrastructure categories, which will be included in the new reports on Puerto Rico´s infrastructure.

The full report released yesterday is available at https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/state-item/puerto-rico/