Rarely does a D+ feel like a solid step in the right direction. Nonetheless, beyond the initially troubling analysis contained in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) comprehensive 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, there is reason for cautious optimism.
Now in its fifth iteration, this report card, which has been released every four years since 1998, analyzed the current condition of 16 components of the nation’s infrastructure: aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, public parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit, and wastewater. It then detailed a funding level required to bring each up to a B grade. America’s overall average of D+ is a slight improvement from the D it scored in 2009. ASCE pegged the necessary investment at $454 billion annually through 2020—$200 billion more than is currently budgeted each year—to notch an overall B.
“This report really makes clear that we’re at a crossroads,” Aric Newhouse, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) senior vice president of policy and government relations, said at the report’s unveiling. “From a manufacturing perspective, we have a very clear choice ahead of us.”
The past four years have shown that when the money is spent, the results are tangible. For the first time since the report card’s launch 15 years ago, a category scored above a C: Thanks to widespread recycling programs, as well as the growing number of “waste-to-energy” technologies that converted nonrecyclable waste materials into some 2,720 megawatts of electricity in 2010, Solid Waste Systems recorded a B-. “While the per-person generation of solid waste increased from 3.66 to 4.43 pounds per day between 1980 and 2010, the recycling rate has also increased from less than 10 percent of [waste] generated in 1980 to about 34 percent in 2010,” the report noted. “The net per capita discard rate (after recycling, composting, and combustion for energy recovery) was 2.4 pounds per person per day, lower than the 2.5 pounds per day in 1960.”
Five other categories improved their standing since the previous report card: Rail improved from C- to C+, the largest jump since 2009; Bridges improved from C to C+; Roads improved from D- to D; Wastewater improved from D- to D; and Drinking Water improved from D- to D. In fact, every category scored at least as well as it did on the previous report card, though there remains much room for improvement.
Both Levees and Inland Waterways brought up the rear, scoring a D-. ASCE reported that there are 100,000 miles or more of levees in the United States, but because 85 percent of them are locally owned, operated, and maintained, “the true extent of the nation’s entire levee system is still unknown.” Of the antiquated waterways, the society noted, “ninety percent of locks and dams on the U.S. inland waterway system experienced some type of unscheduled delay or service interruption in 2009, averaging 52 delays a day. The hours lost due to unscheduled delays … costs industry and consumers hundreds of millions of dollars annually.”
“It’s time to stop duct-taping this problem,” Laborers’ International Union of North America general president Terry O’Sullivan said, voicing the sentiments of civil engineering firms around the country. “Chronic underinvestment created the current crisis and continued failure to adequately invest in our nation’s infrastructure needs only widens the gap and increases the final cost.”
O’Sullivan’s is an important assessment, and one needs to look no further than the massive Minneapolis garage that still houses crumpled steel support beams from the 2007 Interstate 35W bridge collapse that killed 13 to appreciate its sincerity. Still, those funding choices come at a time when budgets are being cut at all levels of government—and experts note that ASCE’s members stand to profit directly from action spearheaded by the society’s reports. The average overall grades from ASCE’s 1998, 2001, 2005, 2009, and 2013 report cards were D, D+, D, D, and D+, respectively. “We need this report to point out problems,” Joshua Schank of the Eno Center on Transportation told The Washington Post. “But if you’re thinking about policy, you have to think more broadly than that.”
And the stark reality, according to experts, is that funding isn’t liable to be there over the next eight years without unpopular revenue increases in the form of increased taxes or user fees. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 17 states have approved or are considering higher gas taxes to help fund infrastructure projects and repairs—yet a Gallup poll released on April 22 found that 66 percent of Americans would vote against a $0.20 per gallon increase to fund those improvements. “The challenge is being able to make the case about specific facilities that people know and understand, and what the implications would be if they have to close that facility,” said Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and former assistant secretary of transportation under the George W. Bush administration. “We’re not going to raise [the total amount of money ASCE recommends]. People acknowledge we have to invest more, but there's disagreement about how much we need to invest. Whatever funds are available, we have to make better choices, prioritize, and target.”