Breaking Down America’s D+ on Infrastructure
Colin Payne posted on March 31, 2017 |
(Image courtesy of ASCE.)
(Image courtesy of ASCE.)
America’s quadrennial report card on infrastructure has been released, and the nation has once again received a near-failing grade. Issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Infrastructure Report Card rates the country’s performance in 16 infrastructure categories using a simple A-to-F grading system. In 2017, America keeps the same rather dismal grade the ASCE gave it on the last report card in 2013: a D+. 

Not exactly something you’d post on the fridge.

The key difference between 2013 and 2017 is that the amount of investment the ASCE says is required bring the grade up to an acceptable level in time for the next report has increased from USD $3.6 trillion to $4.59 trillion.

The highest individual grade is a B in the Rail category while the lowest is a D- in Transit.

The grades for six categories remain unchanged from the 2013 report, while those for Parks, Solid Waste and Transit have gone down. On a positive note, Hazardous Waste, Inland Waterways, Levees, Ports, Rail, Schools and Wastewater have all seen modest improvements.

Category
2017 Grade
2013 Grade
Change
Category Aviation
2017 Grade D
2013 Grade D
Change -
Category Bridges
2017 Grade C+
2013 Grade C+
Change -
Category Dams
2017 Grade D
2013 Grade D
Change -
Category Drinking Water
2017 Grade D
2013 Grade D
Change -
Category Energy
2017 Grade D+
2013 Grade D+
Change -
Category Hazardous Waste
2017 Grade D+
2013 Grade D
Change
Category Inland Waterways
2017 Grade D
2013 Grade D-
Change
Category Levees
2017 Grade D
2013 Grade D-
Change
Category Ports
2017 Grade C+
2013 Grade C
Change
Category Public Parks
2017 Grade D+
2013 Grade C-
Change
Category Rail
2017 Grade B
2013 Grade C+
Change
Category Roads
2017 Grade D
2013 Grade D
Change -
Category Schools
2017 Grade D+
2013 Grade D
Change
Category Solid Waste
2017 Grade C+
2013 Grade B-
Change
Category Transit
2017 Grade D-
2013 Grade D
Change
Category Wastewater
2017 Grade D+
2013 Grade D
Change

With President Donald Trump reportedly planning to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next four years, some of these categories could see significant improvement by the time the next ASCE report card is issued. But in the meantime, there’s clearly still a long ways to go before America’s infrastructure has any chance at getting on the honor roll.

Let's take a closer look at a few of the categories.

 

The Highest Grade: Rail Gets a B

According to the ASCE, America’s rail system is generally well maintained and gets a B grade—up from the C+ that it received in 2013. Things look particularly good in the private freight rail industry, which owns most of the country’s rail infrastructure and invested $27.1 billion in it in 2015. 

(Image courtesy of ASCE.)
(Image courtesy of ASCE.)
Still, the ASCE does see room for some major improvements to the country’s passenger rail system, which is largely owned and operated by Amtrak. While Amtrak uses relatively freight railroad systems for its national network, it maintains its own rail systems in the Northeast Corridor (NEC) that runs from Washington D.C. to Boston.

In the report card, the ASCE says much of the infrastructure in the NEC is beyond its useful life and needs increased maintenance, leaving a backlog of about $28 billion to bring the system to what the ASCE considers a state of good repair. Gaps in maintenance inevitably reduce reliability and increases risk on a system that sees about 750,000 passenger trips per day.


Ups and Downs: Ports and Solid Waste Get a C+

Americans produce about 258 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) each year. Roughly 53 percent of that ends up in landfills, 35 percent is recycled and 13 percent is burned to produce energy. How all that waste gets managed is key.

(image courtesy of ASCE.)
(Image courtesy of ASCE.)
The ASCE gives MSW a middling grade of C+, stating that the overall management of municipal solid waste (MSW) in the country is currently in “fair condition.” The MSW system tends to stay in good condition because it’s largely self-funded and managed by private sector companies. But the system got a downgrade this year from its B- rating in 2013, because the ASCE has seen little progress in efforts to reduce the amount of waste produced. While the amount of trash produced by the Average American is down to 4.4lbs per day from its peak of 4.74lbs per day in 2000, the numbers have not changed significantly in the last 25 years. 

Ports also got a C+ in 2017, up from a C in the 2013 report. The country’s 926 port facilities are the responsible for 99 percent of America’s overseas trade, amounting to $4.6 trillion of economic activity each year.

(Image courtesy of ASCE.)
(Image courtesy of ASCE.)
While ports around the country have seen plenty of maintenance and significant modernization, many of them are now experiencing major changes due to larger ships that require ports to adjust equipment, berth depths, terminal layouts and cargo handling operations more regularly than in the past.

Despite these issues, investments in ports are mostly limited to state or local appropriations, which means states with multiple ports often see one port competing against another for what limited funds are available.


The Lowest Grade: Transit Gets a D-

While D was the most common grade on the report card, only one category scored lower: Transit, which received a D- and a downgrade from its D score in 2013, when only 51 percent of US households reported that they could get to a grocery store using public transportation.

(Image courtesy of ASCE.)
(Image courtesy of ASCE.)
However, according to the ASCE, transit system usage continues to grow in the United States, with about 10.5 billion total trips in 2015—a 33 percent increase from 1995. 

Despite that growth, the ASCE describes America’s transit system as “chronically underfunded,” resulting in aging infrastructure and a rehabilitation backlog to the tune of $90 billion. The cost of getting the system into a state of good repair is predicted to grow to as much as $122 billion by 2032.


The Keys to Improving American Infrastructure

As is clear from the low grades issued on the ASCE’s report card, there’s much to be done to whip America’s infrastructure into shape.

The report card proposes some solutions, such as increasing infrastructure investment from 2.5 percent of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 3.5 percent by 2025. The ASCE also recommends creating incentives for state and local governments as well as the private sector to invest in infrastructure maintenance and streamlining the project permit process.

Creating “an infrastructure system fit for the 21st century,” the report card says, requires some specific steps that start with increased, long-term and consistent investment. Failing to do so will only increase costs in the long run and increase the risks of an aging infrastructure system.


Will Trump’s Plan Cut It?

President Donald Trump’s $1-trillion “Rebuild America” infrastructure investment plan could take a big bite out of the nation’s $4.59 billion infrastructure deficit. However, few details of the plan have been released.

“Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land,” Trump said in late February, during a speech to a joint session of congress. “To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States—financed through both public and private capital—creating millions of new jobs.”

As NBC News notes, exactly how this plan will be achieved and who will pay for it still remains to be seen. House Speaker, Paul Ryan said the infrastructure bill could come as early as this spring, but it could also get pushed back to 2018 as the Republicans deal with other issues.

The plan will most likely rely heavily on private-sector investment fuelled by tax credits, while increased tax revenue from new private spending, economic activity and employment from the projects will help pay for the very same tax credits. Whether that will provide the significant and sustained infrastructure investments the ASCE says are needed is still up for debate.

How should we solve America’s infrastructure problems? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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