Are Ohio bridges, dams, drinking systems safe? State’s infrastructure graded mediocre on average

Keowee Street was closed to repair a water main break. MARSHALL GORBY\STAF
Keowee Street was closed to repair a water main break. MARSHALL GORBY\STAF

Ohio’s civil engineers gave the state an underwhelming average grade of C- on its 2021 report card examining 16 infrastructure categories.

Of the sectors graded, not one received an exceptional grade nor was found to be failing, but six categories received poor marks, including the state’s roads, transit systems along with drinking water and wastewater systems, which were determined at risk due to aging distribution pipes and unreliable funding sources.

“For years, American infrastructure was the envy of the world,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “But for too long now, we have simply failed to invest the necessary resources in our nation’s roads and bridges and schools and water and sewer systems and technology.”

Brown, along with U.S. Rep. Troy Balderson, R-Zanesville, a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, spoke last week during the announcement of the Ohio Council of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) report card, which also gave sub-par marks to the state’s dams, inland waterways, levees and transit systems.

Dealing with the nation’s infrastructure needs can “be a little frustrating,” but Balderson said he wanted on the committee to help find bipartisan solutions to the country’s pressing needs.

“We all can agree that we know that our roads and bridges and our water and our sewer and our rural broadband, all need dire tension right now,” he said.

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The last national report card released in 2017 gave the country’s infrastructure a cumulative D+ grade point average, the same as in 2013. A new nationwide report is due out March 3.

The studies are done to provide citizens and policymakers a clearer picture of infrastructure needs, according to the organization.

Craig Heberand, ASCE Ohio Council president, said the peer-reviewed Ohio report was the first in a decade and a “considerable undertaking.” The report card “is not intended to grade any individual infrastructure provider.”

Roads and bridges get low grades

Ohio’s roads rated a D and its bridges C+.

Ohio’s motor fuel tax was increased in 2019 to boost funds for local and state roadway projects but the coronavirus pandemic cut travel and as a result less revenue is coming to the state, said Lloyd MacAdam, chief engineer for the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT).

“Back in 2019, we could have never foresaw what was going to happen in 2020,” MacAdam said. “Last year, traffic volumes for the entire state for the entire year were down 15.5% on average.”

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The main source — 98% — of ODOT’s revenue comes from federal and state gas taxes, MacAdam said.

While roads and bridges get the most attention and a bulk of resources, systems carrying drinking water to Ohioans and treating their sewage is becoming a “big issue,” especially in faster-developing areas of the state like Delaware County, Balderson said.

Ohio drinking systems get a D+

The report card gave drinking water systems a D+ grade.

Drinking water infrastructure in Ohio is sufficient to meet current and expected residential and commercial demands, according to the ASCE study. However, while meeting newer stringent regulations and water quality standards with limited funds, providers can’t put off fixing deteriorating systems, the civil engineers warn.

Dayton’s water and sewer infrastructure includes wells, drinking water treatment plants, distribution systems, wastewater treatment facilities, storm water systems and more. The Department of Water is engaged in a long-term effort to repair or replace much of the system, to ensure efficient and reliable operations for the future.
Dayton’s water and sewer infrastructure includes wells, drinking water treatment plants, distribution systems, wastewater treatment facilities, storm water systems and more. The Department of Water is engaged in a long-term effort to repair or replace much of the system, to ensure efficient and reliable operations for the future.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Currently, the state’s systems experience water losses of more than 35% and breaks are projected to increase by 36% in some areas over the next 20 years, according to the report card.

Even without rapid development in Montgomery County, dated water and sewer systems need constant maintenance and replacement, officials said.

“We have an aging infrastructure, some of our oldest places going back to the 1920s,” said Matt Hilliard, Montgomery County Environmental Services director.

“All of our capital projects are to replace aging infrastructure, or infrastructure that is prone to failures,” he said. “We’re not growing enough to really be adding things, so it’s mostly just replacing.”

The county’s system has about 1,200 miles of sewer mains and 1,400 miles of water mains, some made of cast iron pipe installed after World War II that hasn’t withstood time as well as pipe manufactured even decades earlier, Hilliard said.

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Montgomery County logged 371 water main breaks in 2019 and recorded 317 during 2020. On Tuesday afternoon, Montgomery County crews were working to fix 11 water main breaks sprung by this week’s cold snap, according to the county.

The city of Dayton faces the same challenges with an aging system, said Michael Powell, Water Department director.

Since 2013, Dayton has awarded over 173 projects for a total $213 million across the water, sanitary and storm water utilities, including more than 56 miles of water distribution piping and 71 miles of sanitary sewer rehabilitation, according to Powell.

Ohio dams receive a C-

The state’s dams and levees are easy to overlook — but at much peril, said Boris Slogar, chief engineer of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District.

With Ohio’s water riches, dams are the frontline defense for fighting floods and managing runoff as more intense storm events stress dams, 118 in the state deemed high-hazard dams, Slogar said.

Like any structure, dams must be maintained and upgraded, Slogar said.

“They do not age like fine wine,” he said.

Dams received a C- grade, meaning they are mediocre and need attention; the state’s levee systems were deemed poor and at risk, receiving a D.

Dams in Ohio, including the Huffman Dam, received a C- grade, meaning they are mediocre and need attention; the state’s levee systems were deemed poor and at risk, receiving a D.TOM GILLIAM / CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER
Dams in Ohio, including the Huffman Dam, received a C- grade, meaning they are mediocre and need attention; the state’s levee systems were deemed poor and at risk, receiving a D.TOM GILLIAM / CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Credit: Tom Gilliam

The Miami Conservancy District (MCD) has invested $23 million over the past 20 years in dam upgrades and rehabilitation, but tens of millions more are needed in necessary repairs to the concrete walls at the five dams and to floodwalls and revetment to protect cities along the Great Miami River, according to MCD.

“Even though our dams and levees work as designed, the need is real,” says Kurt Rinehart, MCD chief engineer. “The concrete is 100 years old. If we don’t address the concrete issues within the next 20 years, we could face safety concerns about the dams’ effectiveness.”

Rinehart said a climate growing wetter is causing more storage events at the dams.

“We need to ensure the integrity of the dams for future generations,” he said. “We can’t wait long to make these improvements.”

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Ohio’s network of levees reduce the risk of flooding for more than 151,000 people and $27.5 billion in property, but a majority are nearly 50 years old or more, which is beyond their design life, according to the ASCE report card.

The report contends that mechanical and electrical components of levee systems are deteriorating. Further, a large majority of levee systems in Ohio have not had risk assessments to learn their condition and inconsistent standards are applied to the maintenance and inspections of levees in the state.

Nearly 60% of Ohio’s more than 2,500 dams are privately owned. The five dams built in the Dayton region after the Great Flood of 1913 are locally/publicly owned by MCD. But local ownership brings hurdles to pay for upkeep, said Janet Bly, MCD general manager.

“The people of the Miami Valley and the cities and counties that benefit from the dams and levees pay for their maintenance and capital improvements,” says Janet Bly, MCD general manager. “But they can’t continue to bear the entire financial burden. Unfortunately, there are few opportunities for federal funds for locally owned dams and levees.”

Transit systems at risk

The civil engineers rated Ohio’s transit systems poor and at risk.

“It’s pretty hard to feel good about a D, however, we have a lot of room for opportunity and a lot of room for investment, particularly from the state,” said India Birdsong, general manager and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

Birdsong said there’s been a 20-year decline in state funding for transit systems.

According to the ASCE study, Ohio has 27 urban and 34 rural transit systems that serve 83 of Ohio’s 88 counties. During 2018, approximately 18% of Ohio’s revenue vehicles exceeded their useful lives, a 55% increase over the nearly 12% of vehicles in 2003, according to the report card.

The Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority has spent the last five years renovating facilities and replacing its buses, leaving the fleet one of the youngest in the state, said Bob Ruzinsky, deputy CEO.

Funding though has not allowed the local transit authority to keep pace with changing needs of employers and citizens who are asking for more frequent service, Ruzinsky said.

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RTA is just starting to line up funding for a systemwide rebuild of the electric distribution system, expected to take 15-20 years.

“Our electrical infrastructure system for the trolley buses is the next major project we are undertaking,” he said. “Parts of this system are 100 years old.”

Ohio’s rail system, ranking fourth in the nation with 5,188 miles of track, received the best grade (B) of all categories. The state’s solid waste programs also rated high comparatively with a B-.

“Most landfills are self-funded through waste collection fees and a large portion of this revenue goes directly to operations and maintenance, making it self-sustaining,” said Jim Pajk, past president of the ASCE Ohio Council.

School infrastructure gets a C+

Schools earned a C+ grade despite a lack of recent data in the quality of school infrastructure, reads the ASCE report. Since 1997, Ohio has remained near or above the national average of annual operations and maintenance, spending and total school-construction capital. according to the report card.

The report says capacity is sufficient as Ohio’s student enrollment is projected to decrease by 5-12% between 2012 and 2024. Regardless, spending on school infrastructure is inadequate to combat impacts of aging facilities, some of which are over 100 years old.

Park systems in the state were given a mediocre grade by the civil engineers.

While the state’s park infrastructure is mostly in fair to good condition, the state’s 44th ranking out in acres of park land per resident makes the total area of park land insufficient for Ohioans, according to the report card.

The population served by Five Rivers MetroParks doesn’t suffer from a shortage of land, said Carrie Scarff, chief of planning and projects.

A 2016 master plan showed MetroParks’ 16,000-plus acres and 18 parks provided adequate per-capita parkland and preserved open space for Montgomery County, she said.

Keeping up the parks is a high priority for the agency, but is a constant fiscal challenge, Scarff said.

“Given the severe drop in property taxes from the 2009 recession and the subsequent cuts to local government funding, however, many local park agencies, including Five Rivers MetroParks, struggle to maintain their infrastructure,” she said.

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