2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card | Part 4 in a Series
The rest of the story
by Mark K. Boyd PhD, PE, M. ASCE (Chair, 2021 Infrastructure Report Card Committee)
The 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card came out in February but it needs to stay up in the minds of our State legislature, the public at large, and the ASCE community. This is the 4th and last in a series of articles highlighting important issues of Texas infrastructure. If you have not read them yet, I invite you to browse the last three editions right here, in the Texas Civil Engineer online, so you may get caught up! The first article was about the journey this fantastic committee took developing the report card during the pandemic. In that first article I also went down memory lane of my own childhood in the developing world as I recalled and recounted steps I was taking early on toward my own Civil Engineering infrastructure journey. I called for Civil Engineers to look sympathetically outside our borders. Don’t complain. Just get to work! We have plenty of good foundation to build on in Texas! The second article was about the worst 2021 grades and why there are reasons for optimism and pessimism for improvement in the areas of levees and wastewater infrastructure condition. The third article was a collaboration with Geoffrey Roberts – Chairman, of the ASCE Texas Beyond Storms Committee about the big elephant in the room which appeared with the combination of the February winter storms and the report card best B+ grade assigned to the Energy chapter. This new committee composed of similarly talented and energetic professionals is developing a report on its tie in to interdependent infrastructure and how Texas must avoid a black start catastrophe at all costs.
The Texas GPA of C did not tell the whole story as it rose even though 12 categories were evaluated, 4 more than 2017 which included 2 categories never before assessed. The report card is all about setting the right priorities and targets for smart infrastructure investment. Most of the 4 additions dragged the GPA down, as well as some other categories that continued to reside at the bottom of the grade scale.
This wrap up article presents some final thoughts on the report card, the rest of the story, with a discussion on a few selected categories. I picked four categories to discuss in this article including Solid Waste as an example of a good grade that slid since last time, the improving important category of Drinking Water, the brand new category of Parks & Recreation (never before graded in Texas), and a particularly poor transportation grade for Highways and Roads.
GOOD BUT DECLINING: SOLID WASTE Grade “B”
The solid waste grade declined from a B+ in 2012 (the last time it was evaluated) to a B in the current 2021 report card. Texans generated approximately 40.2 million tons of solid waste in 2015. Per capita each Texan generated 8 pounds of solid waste per a day, significantly higher than the national rate of 4.5 pounds. That same year, the recycling rate in Texas was 23%, marginally below the national rate of 26%.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) delegates the authority to permit and regulate all municipal solid waste (MSW) facilities in the state to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Solid waste management in Texas is provided by a combination of public and private entities. Texas has a reasonable amount of waste disposal capacity in reserve, with the statewide average of 51 years of capacity in reserve. However, continued population growth will result in an uneven distribution of Texas’ reserve waste disposal capacity. While there are parts of the state that have robust recycling collection programs and access to infrastructure to divert material from disposal, there is a significant portion in both urban and rural areas without access to these programs. The application of new solid waste management technology and techniques is very limited in Texas and largely applies to only waste disposal operations, not recycling.
Unlike other infrastructure, solid waste does not receive funding from the Federal government. Texas collects tipping fees from each ton of waste disposed. A portion of these funds are retained in reserves. With a reserve balance of $112 million, as of January 2020, Texas could fund more innovative and resilient solid waste management practices for public and private industries, stretching existing landfill capacity by increasing reserve spending.
While the grade declined, I believe there is reason for optimism because this slight decline occurred during a time of unprecedented population growth with resulting solid waste generation that could have stressed the system to unacceptable conditions. The subcommittee was generally optimistic that future improvement is likely in the area of solid waste.
POOR BUT IMPROVING: DRINKING WATER Grade “C-“
While not the worst grade in the set, drinking water conditions are in poor but improving condition relative to 2017 grade of D+ due to improvements in conservation, planning, management, and increases in State funding and financing support.
As previously reported, reliable surface water quality depends on the condition of wastewater, which got the worst grade (with Levees) of D. In contrast, the wastewater grade is not improving substantially because of lack of attention and urgency to funding. Drinking water seems to get more attention and thereby is improving, but that has limits because of its interdependence with wastewater infrastructure condition.
Texas’ commitment to fund safe, adequate, and reliable drinking water is critically important for continuing growth and prosperity. Texas’ population is projected to grow by more than 1,000 people per day— from 29.7 million in 2020 to approximately 51.5 million by 2070. Meeting these increasing water demands is imperative to the state’s economy.
The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) developed the first State Water Plan (SWP) in 1961 for Texas legislators. Updated every five years since 1992 and incorporating 16 regional water plans since 2002, the SWP guides state water policy. Current and anticipated shortages are addressed in areas with limited surface water supplies or areas concerned about groundwater resource conditions. Water conservation currently adds 1.07 million acre-feet per year (AFY) of supply and is projected to increase by 140%, by 2070. The total capital cost of water supply strategies identified in the 2017 water plan is $63 billion with an expected $26.8 billion funding gap to be filled by water utility revenues.
NEW CATEGORY: PARKS & RECREATION Grade “C-“
With no prior grade to compare to, Parks & Recreation was graded for the first time in Texas Section history. Texas contains some of the most diverse public lands in the country, including 14 national parks and 88 state parks, covering 630,000-plus acres that showcase natural treasures, numerous county and city parks, and many communities’ public green spaces. The Texas State Park System’s funding includes multiple allocations and appropriations passed by the Texas Legislature. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is the state agency whose mission is to manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and to provide hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation opportunities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. The TPWD Fiscal Year 2021 budget is $444.6 million. These funds are required to adequately operate, maintain, and protect parks. Unfortunately, history shows funding is all too often diverted. Texans, however, passed Proposition 5 in 2019, ensuring that 100% of sporting goods sales tax helps fund TPWD and the Texas Historical Commission (THC). Parks and green spaces energize communities and serve as retreat venues, creating memories and enjoyment of the outdoors. State parks serve as emergency shelters during crisis events, such as hurricanes and floods. Parks also preserve scenic natural treasures and conserve wildlife and their habitats, while allowing the public to enjoy recreational resources. With over 96% of Texas land privately owned, counties and cities depend upon donations to acquire properties and designate it for public use. Proposition 5 funding will help secure the future of local parks, state parks, and historic sites for generations to come. Dedicated park funding is extremely important given the $800 million remaining in deferred maintenance projects.
BAD TRANSPORTATION GRADE: HIGHWAYS AND ROADS Grade “D+”
While improved from a D in 2017, the important category of highways and roads received a poor grade overall indicating a great deal of need for improved planning and funding. Texas’ highway network is the nation’s largest and critical to our economy. The State’s economic growth depends on the efficiency, reliability, and safety of our highway system, supporting individual mobility, commerce, and industry needs. From 2015 to 2020, Texas’ population grew by nearly 9% and roadway conditions saw modest improvements pointing to positive outcomes and a continued need for infrastructure expansion and updates. From 2010 to 2016, daily vehicle travel rose nearly 16%, resulting in many Texas motorists are seeing increased delays, limited roadway capacities, and deteriorating conditions. Auto commuters in Austin, DFW, and Houston face significantly more congestion than the national average. The average Texan spends 54 hours in traffic at a cost of $1,080 annually.
However, current funding levels and resources from the state’s gas tax are inadequate to keep up with Texas’ projected growth, leaving a $15 billion annual gap through 2040. While some of Texas’ urban centers are seeing trail and bikeway improvements and voters supported transportation funding increases in 2014 and 2015, a continued, collaborative effort from the public, state legislators, and professionals is needed to “keep the foot on the gas” in guiding the state’s roads in the right direction.
I have enjoyed providing these articles for ASCE membership. While I have not presented a discussion of every category in these series of articles, I encourage you to read the entire 92 page report card that can be accessed at this link: 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card. Join me in continuing to disseminate report card information and push infrastructure design and funding to foster improved quality of life for all.
>> Read the 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card Series – Part 1: Infrastructure Crisis? What Are You Maniacs Talking About?
>> Read the 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card Series – Part 2: The Worst Grades of Texas: Levees and Wastewater
>> Read the 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card Series – Part 3: Beyond Storms – discovering new challenges when critical infrastructure is stressed