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Upgrading the Infrastructure

October 27, 2002

Infrastructure is usually like the sunny Southern California climate -- something that busy Orange County residents can take for granted. Unless, of course, rain forces a weekend picnic at Irvine Park indoors or the health department cordons off Huntington Beach after a sewage spill.

We take a lot of things for granted -- that garbage picked up at the curb will make its way to a suitable landfill and that clean water will run when the faucet is opened. But basic services aren't a given; taxpayers must make continuous payments to maintain the largely hidden infrastructure or face a future cluttered with sewer line breaks, worn-out classrooms and unsafe bridges.

There's good and bad news on the county's infrastructure front, according to a six-month study by a UC Irvine-led coalition of academics, development consultants and public officials. The good news is that the local infrastructure merits a solid C--in large part because the county is relatively young. The bad news is that county schools and a failure to deal with urban runoff generated near-failing grades.

The results of the study released on Oct. 10 were an offshoot of a national report card that the American Society of Civil Engineers began publishing in 2001. Orange County fared better than the nation -- which earned a D-plus grade that reflects serious infrastructure deficits in older cities and counties.

The county earned a B for handling water and solid-waste treatment, but the grade could slip as 7,500 miles of water-main pipes and 200 drinking-water storage systems age and the county begins the tough but necessary task of locating future landfills.

The county's wastewater, recreation and transportation infrastructure merited C grades. A park will blossom on the former El Toro Marine base, but the county scored a C grade for aviation facilities.

The relatively strong showing was countered by D grades for school facilities, which researchers described as old, outdated and overcrowded. The county also came close to an F for failing to contain urban runoff that threatens to wreck water quality.

Students who've fallen behind on their coursework know the difficulty of catching up. The same holds true on the county infrastructure report card. It could cost as much as $1.2 billion to remedy the D grade for urban runoff. But the alternative -- sitting back and enjoying the weather -- is going to be even more costly.

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