July | August 2017

by Greg DiLoreto
On the campaign trail, in the halls of state capitols and in legislative hearing rooms, officials on both sides of the political aisle and at all levels of government are talking about improving America’s infrastructure. President Donald Trump continues to vow to fulfill his campaign promise to invest $1 trillion in the nation’s roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure, and governors and state legislators are similarly at work to fulfill their own campaign promises. A message that the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, has been sharing for decades is starting to take hold: U.S. infrastructure needs attention and investment.
Elected officials are prioritizing infrastructure because they have heard their constituents loud and clear. A recent poll from CNN/ORC International found that 79 percent of respondents support increased spending on infrastructure. The success of infrastructure-related ballot initiatives shows it, too, with 70.4 percent of the 436 transportation-related measures passing in the November 2016 election. Since 2013, 17 state legislatures have raised their gas taxes to better fund transportation infrastructure.
ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card reveals that the time to do something to improve and modernize America’s infrastructure is now, not only because of mounting public interest, but also because of the growing need. Failing to act can have serious consequences for public health and safety, as well as the national economy.
Prepared every four years since 1998, the Infrastructure Report Card offers civil engineers’ comprehensive assessment of America’s 16 major infrastructure categories. Using a simple A-to-F school report card format, the report card examines current infrastructure conditions and needs, assigning grades and making recommendations to raise them.
While the 2017 report card indicates that some incremental progress has been made toward restoring our nation’s infrastructure since the last report card in 2013, it has not been enough. America’s cumulative GPA is a D+, the same grade as in 2013.
The 2017 grades range from a B for rail to a D- for transit, illustrating the clear impact of investment—or lack thereof—on the grades. Three categories—parks, solid waste and transit—received a decline in grade this year, while seven—hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, rail, schools and wastewater—saw slight improvement. Six categories’ grades remain unchanged from 2013—aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy and roads.
The areas of infrastructure that improved benefited from vocal leadership, thoughtful policymaking and investments that garnered results.
The grades remain a cause for concern and reflect the fact that America’s infrastructure bill is long overdue. For instance, while rail received the highest grade, a result of the freight rail industry’s significant and sustained infrastructure investments over the last decade, transit’s D- reflects the growing backlog in needs.
In addition to grading the nation’s infrastructure, ASCE estimates the investment needed in each infrastructure category to maintain a state of good repair and earn a grade of B.
The most recent analysis reveals the U.S. has only been paying about half of its infrastructure bill for some time and failing to close that gap leads to rising costs, falling business productivity, plummeting GDP, lost jobs, and ultimately, reduced disposable income for every American family.
Even though the U.S. Congress and some states have recently made efforts to invest more in infrastructure, these efforts do not come close to the estimated $2 trillion in remaining infrastructure needs. To raise the overall infrastructure grade and maintain our global competitiveness, Congress and the states must invest an additional $206 billion each year to prevent the economic consequences to families, business and the economy.
As ASCE discovered in its 2016 economic study, Failure to Act: Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future, failing to close this infrastructure investment gap brings serious economic consequences:
On top of those costs, hardworking American families will lose upward of $3,400 in dispos-able income each year—about $9 each day—in direct and indirect costs due to poor infra-structure. Through lost time, wasted gas, expensive car repairs, lost hours at work due to power outages and water main breaks, and countless other losses and disruptions resulting from deteriorating infrastructure, we each already pay a significant amount for infrastructure that doesn’t work as well as we need it to.
Our infrastructure needs are significant, but solvable. The report card goes beyond defining the problem; it also offers solutions on how to improve the grades: consistent and sustained investment, vocal leadership, careful planning and preparation for the needs of the future.
We can no longer afford to defer investment in our nation’s infrastructure. To close the $2 trillion 10-year investment gap, meet future needs and restore America’s global competitive advantage, we must increase investment from all levels of government and the private sector from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product by 2025.
The report card and Failure to Act report find surface transportation—roads, bridges and transit—makes up the largest part of the overall investment gap, $1.1 trillion. That is why ASCE urges Congress to fix the Highway Trust Fund by raising the federal motor fuels tax by 25 cents and indexing it to inflation.
ASCE also supports other funding approaches, including supporting infrastructure owners and operators charging rates and fees that reflect the true cost of using, maintaining and improving infrastructure. By identifying a pipeline of infrastructure projects attractive to private-sector investment and public-private partnerships, other channels for increased, sustained investment can be leveraged for real impact.
Smart investment will only be possible with leadership, planning and a clear vision for the future. Leaders from all levels of government, business, labor and nonprofit organizations must come together to ensure all investments are spent wisely, prioritizing projects with critical benefits to the economy, public safety and quality of life, while also planning for the costs of building, operating and maintaining the infrastructure for its entire lifespan.
ASCE believes that maintenance is crucial, and calls for creating incentives for state and local governments and the private sector to invest in maintenance.
Finally, new approaches, materials and technologies must be used to ensure our infrastructure is resilient and sustainable. Emerging technologies and shifting social, environmental and economic trends—autonomous vehicles and distributed power generation and storage, for example—should inform the development of new infrastructure to assure long-term utility. And, research and development will help to modernize and extend the life of infrastructure, expedite overhauls and promote efficiencies.
Opportunity exists right now to make good on these recommendations to solve our nation’s infrastructure crisis, as the Trump administration and U.S. Congress weigh infrastructure legislation and state and local governments around the country look to take action in their communities. Infrastructure functions as a system, and a holistic approach is required to address challenges and prepare for future needs. Unfortunately, despite the president’s stated interest in improving infrastructure, his proposed budget does the opposite, cutting programs that fund critical transportation projects and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water projects. State and local governments can’t fix these issues on their own; the federal government needs to be a strong and active partner.
ASCE is working at the state and federal levels to increase investment in America’s infrastructure and implement solutions that will put the country on a path of economic prosperity. The report card is the cornerstone of these efforts. The report card’s digital home, InfrastructureReportCard.org, features detailed looks at each of the 16 categories of infrastructure for a glimpse at the state of America’s infrastructure at the national level, while also taking a closer look at what is happening at the state level. Through key state infrastructure facts, a “supermap” graphic exploring 50-state infrastructure data, and ASCE’s state report cards, available in more than half of the states, visitors gain a better understanding of America’s infrastructure challenges. Meanwhile, ASCE members are advocating for infrastructure investments in statehouses across the country and in the halls of Congress, determined to make this issue a priority nationwide.
Trump has called for a new program of national rebuilding. Renewing the nation’s infrastructure and solving our problems will take collective action. Leaders from all levels of government and the private sector, along with every American, must prioritize closing our infrastructure deficit, commit to a future in which we improve infrastructure, and value it as key to our quality of life and economic prosperity.
Every day of delay escalates our shared costs, jeopardizes our health, and risks our security—an option our country, economy and communities can no longer afford.

About the Author

Greg DiLoreto is the chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, a past president of ASCE, and the former CEO of the Tualatin Valley Water District in metropolitan Portland, Oregon.