ASCE Leader Smith Says D+ Grade for Infrastructure Fails Americans

The pivoting debate about infrastructure investment might seem like it mostly takes place in Congressional hearing rooms, in meetings between policymakers and business executives, or in the nonstop work legislative staffers do in the nation’s capital.

But American Society of Civil Engineers Executive Director Thomas Smith III knows the discussion is also happening in other places that represent the core of American life: around the dinner table, while commuters sit in traffic listening to the news, and in communities spread across our nearly 3.8 million-square-mile country where people work, visit and live.

The ASCE Infrastructure Report Card – which is released every four years – provides one of the most widely shared qualitative and quantitative overviews of the state of America’s infrastructure. And this year, the nation’s infrastructure again received a grade of D+, signaling that increased investment in the nation’s overburdened and declining infrastructure is essential and Americans deserve better.

“This is certainly detracting from Americans’ quality of life. For example, we spend more time sitting in traffic, power outages are more frequent, and we lose billions of dollars from water leakages and leaky pipes,” explains Smith, who is both an attorney and a civil engineer. He has been with ASCE for a decade in varying capacities and was selected to be executive director in 2015.

ASCE estimates unmet infrastructure investment needs of more than $2 trillion through 2025, and Smith says a national vision is crucial to generate an understanding that this issue is about the future of America’s economy, safety and connectivity.

He cites the importance of: increasing investment of GDP from 2.5 percent, to 3.5 percent; guaranteeing immediate and long-term funding on every level, from federal, state and local governments; and private-sector financing. Additionally, ASCE notes that the federal gas tax – which is 18.4 cents and is meant to keep the Highway Trust Fund secure – needs to be increased since it has not been raised in 24 years.

What’s Really Happening All Over America?

The Report Card covers 16 areas, from those that are more transportation related such as bridges, roads, transit and ports that are massive import and export hubs for the nation, to other areas that contribute to how societies function. This includes drinking water, energy, schools, public parks and dams – the latter of which are aging while increasingly protecting more people and property below.

Twelve of the categories received grades in the D range, and many did not fluctuate from grades given in 2013.

On the transportation side, the lowest grade went to transit, which received a D-. This is linked to project backlogs, deferred maintenance, and chronic underfunding within a system that is seeing higher ridership levels. The highest grade, a B, went to rail. The latter Smith attributes to private investment within the rail industry and an excellent freight system.

Another key category is roads, which received a D, the same mark it did in 2013. Smith says that more than two out of every five miles of urban interstates are congested, traffic delays have cost the country $160 billion in wasted time and fuel (based on 2014 figures), and more than 35,000 people were killed in motor-vehicle crashes in 2015. Recent data also show a $420 billion maintenance backlog on the nation’s highways.

Part of Smith’s message to the American public is that the nation can no longer rest on the work of prior generations and fail to invest in the country’s infrastructure in a sustainable, versus piecemeal, way. But he is encouraged by promises made by President Trump and elected leaders that infrastructure is an urgent issue.

“The American people and our elected leaders need to see that now is the time and this has to be a priority. We can no longer just keep kicking the can down the road,” says Smith. “I think, too often, we take our infrastructure for granted and we think we can continue to postpone and push this off to future generations. But I think we’re at a point now that our infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life … and it’s actually become more expensive not to act than it would be to act.”

Solutions Are Needed to Help Keep the U.S. Globally Strong

“The bottom line is we can’t continue to just be reactive and wait for a disaster and then invest, and we continuously see things like that happen and we spend enormous dollars when we do that. It is far more cost-effective to be proactive,” says Smith. “We can solve the problem with investment, motivating people, and putting people back to work. And we have to recognize that no matter what, people who use infrastructure have to pay for it.”

Smith says this mindset is critical because ASCE’s Report Card cautions that if the investment gap is not addressed by 2025, the economy is forecasted to lose almost $4 trillion in GDP, $7 trillion in business sales and 2.5 million jobs. Individual U.S. households will lose $3,400 yearly in disposable income.

Smith also points out that even though the ASCE does not rank the United States’ infrastructure against other nations, the World Economic Forum does and its ranking does not even place America in the top 10. Furthermore, the United States is among a block of G20 economies in which infrastructure investment has actually declined as a share of GDP, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

While other countries pump money into infrastructure, America continues to struggle in multiple ways, which trickles down to how America is positioned in a global era. Aviation, for instance, received a grade of D, which Smith adds is the result of mandated facility maintenance caps (how much passengers can be charged) and associated infrastructure and air-traffic control systems that are not keeping up. Smith said that the United States does not have one airport, among rankings of airports throughout the world, in the top 25.

Finally, the fact that financing and funding solutions are needed sooner than later is rearing its head all over the country. Some states are increasing their state gas taxes, “lockboxing” transportation monies, and identifying financing mechanisms such as public-private partnerships (known as P3s), to help with transportation projects.

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