If lawmakers in Washington needed any more incentive to go big in their pending infrastructure package, the nation’s preeminent group of engineers is giving it to them.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which has more than 150,000 members in 177 countries, gave U.S. infrastructure a ‘C-‘ grade in its “2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” its latest quadrennial assessment of the nation's infrastructure. That’s actually a slight improvement from its ‘D+’ grade four years ago.
The group found the country is spending just over half of what is required to support the backbone of the economy.
Overall, the long-term infrastructure investment gap continues to grow. That gap has risen from $2.1 trillion over 10 years in the last report to $2.59 trillion in the latest study, meaning a funding gap of $259 billion per year.
“This not a report card anyone would be proud to take home,” ASCE Executive Director Thomas Smith said. “We have not made significant enough investments to maintain infrastructure that in some cases was built more than 50 years ago.”
The study showed the U.S. risks “significant economic losses,” higher costs to consumers, businesses and manufacturers—and our quality of life—if we don’t act urgently.
“When we fail to invest in infrastructure, we pay the price,” Smith added.
The study evaluated 17 categories of infrastructure. Grades ranged from a ‘B’ for rail to a ‘D-’ for mass transit. For the first time in 20 years, the country’s infrastructure as a whole received a grade in the ‘C’ range, meaning, on average, the nation’s infrastructure is in mediocre condition, has deficiencies and needs attention.
But in 11 of 17 categories the U.S. received a grade in the ‘D’ range: aviation, dams, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks, roads, schools, stormwater, transit, and wastewater.
Roads received a ‘D’ grade, the same score as four years ago. Some 40 percent of U.S. roads are in poor or fair condition, the report said. Bridges received a ‘C’ grade, lower than the ‘B’ grade than it was four years ago. Of the 615,000 bridges in the U.S., nearly 8 percent are structurally deficient, the report said.
There is a $786 million backlog in roads and bridges, costing drivers at least $1,000 a year. “We all pay that in additional costs in goods,” said Maria Lehman, an ASCE official who will be the group’s president next year.
America’s 1,200 miles of inland waterways received a ‘D+’ in the report. Shippers endured more than 5,000 hours of delays over the past four years, the group said. Some 300 U.S. ports received a ‘B+,’ one of the highest grades of any structure. That’s because of significant investment in dredging to make U.S. ports capable of receiving the larger “Panamax” ships coming through the Panana Canal.
Over the past four years, the U.S. made “incremental” gains in some categories, according to the Report Card. Due to increased investment, grades improved in aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports.
Transit received a ‘D-’ in the report, the lowest grade. Some 45% of Americans lack access to transit and existing infrastructure is aging. The coronavirus pandemic, which has caused a sharp decline in mass transit use, has further worsened transit’s fiscal conditions.
But freight rail was one of the bright spots, the report said. Rail received a ‘B’ grade, one of the highest grades in the report. To bring all rail up to a par condition would cost in excess of $40 billion.
In addition, climate change appears to be taking a toll on U.S. infrastructure, the group said. Last year there were 22 weather and climate disasters in the U.S. that cost at least $1 billion—most in history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Stormwater facilities received a ‘D’ report, as flooding affected both urban and rural areas. Federal funding averages only $250 million a year. That is significantly less than the $8 billion needed to bring stormwater facilities up to par, the group said. Drinking water received a ‘C-.’ The group noted there is a water pipeline bursting every eight minutes in this country.
If the U.S. does not pay its overdue infrastructure bill, ASCE said by 2039 the U.S. economy will lose $10 trillion in economic growth. Furthermore, exports will decline by $2.4 trillion. More than 3 million jobs will be lost in 2039. In addition, each American household will bear $3,300 in hidden costs per year, the report said.
Besides meeting freight and passenger needs, ASCE highlighted the role infrastructure investment could play in speeding the nation’s economic recovery.
“America's infrastructure bill is overdue, and we have been ignoring it for years,” said Jean-Louis Briaud, ASCE president. “The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbates the funding challenge because state and local governments have had to prioritize public health over everything else for the past year.”
ASCE called on Congress and the administration to take “big and bold action” on infrastructure quickly.
“Infrastructure is an issue that everyone agrees needs action and doing so will help the U.S. now and in the future. Delaying only increases the costs,” said Emily Feenstra, ASCE’s managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives.
While ASCE grades the categories individually, the nation’s infrastructure is a series of connected systems. When one area fails, such as the recent power failures in Texas showed, it tends to spread to other areas such as drinking water.
Maintenance backlogs continue to be an issue, but asset management helps prioritize limited funding. State and local governments have made progress such as leveraging gas tax to fund transportation investments, and some limited federal investment has also paid dividends.
While at least 30 states have moved to increase the fuel tax in the past three years, there seems little appetite in Washington to raise the federal tax on fuel—currently 18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline, 24.4 cents on diesel, unchanged since 1993.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently seemed disinclined to raise that fuel tax to help fund what is expected to be nearly a $2 trillion proposal from the Biden administration. But he recently said “some sort of road usage levy” would be necessary to pay for such a large investment.
“Every try at getting the gas tax raised was passed at the state level,” ASCE’s Lehman said. “Infrastructure is bipartisan. The issue is how to pay for it. It’s a big nut.”
There are a “lot of tools in the tool box and I think we have to look at all of them,” ASCE’s Smith concluded.