The nation's infrastructure received a D+ — a slight improvement from the D issued in 2009 — in an infrastructure report card released by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), a group whose members stand to benefit from increased spending on the construction of roads, bridges, levees and dams.
The report grades infrastructure in sixteen sectors and prescribes a funding level necessary to bring each up to a B grade. That will require spending $454 billion annually over the next eight years, according to the group's figures. The society estimates, however, that only $253 billion annually is currently earmarked for infrastructure repair and improvements, leaving a yearly funding gap of $200 billion.
Making sense of infrastructure
At a news conference at the Earth Conservation Corps Pump House in southeast Washington — with a view of the structurally obsolete Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge spanning the Anacostia River — advocates of infrastructure spending sought to convey their message in easy to understand terms, acknowledging that ordinary citizens often do not see the costs associated with outdated infrastructure.
"The real goal is that Americans would have this conversation about infrastructure at their kitchen table," said ASCE president Greg DiLoreto. "They'd sit down and they'd say, you know what? I was driving home last night, hit a pothole, and I ruined the front end of our car. What can be done about that?"
Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, the co-founder of the bipartisan group Building America's Future, said more Americans are beginning to realize that infrastructure is not free and does not last forever. Still, there is a large difference between what a group of civil engineers believes should be spent and what Congress and state and local governments are willing to spend.
"Members of both parties feel this way, predominately Republicans, that we can't spend money on anything. That's wrong," Rendell says. "We've got to get away from this idea that investing in infrastructure is wasteful spending. There are some projects that are bad and we should ask for stricter accountability and transparency, but we've got to invest in growth."
The sector with the highest grade (B-) is solid waste. Inland waterways and levees both received the lowest grade, D-. Grades were poor to mediocre in transportation sectors: aviation (D), bridges (C+), rail (C+), roads (D), and transit (D).
"First we have to repair the quality of the roads," Rendell said. "But then we have to expand. We have to do additional ramps. We have to widen lanes. A good hunk of the money should be spent on mass transit. There's got to be a balance."
Local infrastructure needs work
The report card breaks down infrastructure state by state. In Washington, D.C., for example, 99 percent of roads are rated poor or mediocre. The report card says driving on roads in need of repair costs District of Columbia motorists $311 million a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs - $833 per motorist.
Winning the public's support to raise revenues for infrastructure spending will depend on convincing the public they have to pay more, whether its taxes or user fees, according to 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.
"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 Frankel, who said the ASCE's figures are sound, even if they are unrealistic in terms of what governments are willing to spend.
"We're not going to raise that money. 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," Frankel said.