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Student study: $18 billion needed for Utah infrastructure maintenance over 20 years

Published: Tuesday, July 30 2013 8:05 p.m. MDT

Total needs anticipated in the next year alone for roads, bridges, dams, drinking water and wastewater totaled nearly $1 billion in the students' study.

Stuart Johnson

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SALT LAKE CITY — A class of University of Utah students presented a forecast calling for nearly $18 billion in Utah infrastructure maintenance over the next 20 years.

The students, from Utah's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, researched dams, bridges, roadways, drinking water and wastewater in Utah as part of the Utah section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Students considered the present cost of infrastructure maintenance and improvements as well as a 10-year and 20-year forecasts which resulted in the multi-billion-dollar assessment.

Total needs anticipated in the next year alone for roads, bridges, dams, drinking water and wastewater totaled nearly $1 billion in the students' study.

The students concluded that Utah roads overall are in relatively good condition, requiring $440.8 million for improvements, but foresee $7 billion in road improvements over the next 10 years. Students suggested funds be saved now to avoid paying a large lump sum later for road maintenance.

Rather than give Utah a letter grade like the national study, released every four years, Kyle Farnsworth, project manager for the study, said the students wanted to do something that would address strategies to fix infrastructure problems and not just point them out.

"I think that it's the starting point for a lot of change," he said. "Once different strategies get developed from there then I think that we've left it off at a good place.

The students suggested, for example, use of a poly overlay that costs about $8 per square foot, for Utah bridges that would seal cracks and keep ice melting salt from seeping in and causing corrosion. They estimated the cost of Utah bridge repairs this year would be $136.2 million.

David Eckhoff, president of the Utah section of ASCE at the time of the study, said the public needs to be aware of needed improvements or they won't support them.

"This really affects people," Eckhoff said. "I think one of the most important functions we have being in this business is to let people know what's going on."

He said the group of students came in and pointed out modern standards, like the increase in wastewater discharge quality requirements, and water supply needs along with changing climates.

"We're standing in a 75-year-old house, it's going to have some very large expenses in terms of rebuilding, maintenance, and improvements," he said.

Eckhoff said the study is an across-the-board,in-depth look at the present and future.

Half of the dams in Utah with a high hazard rating — those which are in proximity to a human population — should be upgraded in the next year at an estimated cost of $67 million, students said.

The students said drinking water distribution needs to be upgraded, as the majority of Utah's pipelines are 50 years old or older. The drinking water quality in Utah should be maintained, and students estimated improvements this year would cost $224.6 million.

The key issues with wastewater maintenance are health issues and high levels of nutrients in wastewater. Students noted with new regulations on level and quality of wastewater, plants are lacking in proper treatments. The estimated cost for wastewater maintenance is $100.4 million this year.

Carlton Christensen, Utah League of Cities and Towns President and a Salt Lake City councilmember, said the study becomes the beginning point of infrastructure report card discussions.

"I think it highlights in a very effective way the breakdown between today's maintenance needs and what the long-term cost of that is, and the urgency of taking a look at it and not ignoring it," he said.

Christensen said most importantly, the study starts the infrastructure improvement and upkeep conversation, a topic he said needs to be discussed.

Alana Spendlove, assistant to the ASCE project director, said the goal is to get the information in the hands of the Legislature to show infrastructure needs. She said the study will be finalized in December.

The national ASCE study is released every four years and examines the country's roads, bridges, drinking water, transit, among other categories. The U.S. grade point average is D+, with an estimated $3.6 trillion needed by 2020 to bring that grade up.

Email: eeagar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: EmileeEagar

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