Potholes, Grid Failures, Aging Tunnels And Bridges: Infrastructure Gets A C-Minus

Mar 2, 2021
Originally published on March 4, 2021 7:51 am

Just in time for pothole season, the latest report card on the nation's infrastructure shows that the needs are great but funding is lacking.

Many of the country's roads, bridges, airports, dams, levees and water systems are aging and in poor to mediocre condition. And they're in need of a major federal investment to keep from getting worse and to withstand the harsh effects of a changing climate, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The group gives the nation's infrastructure in general a grade of C-minus on its quadrennial infrastructure report card, up from a D-plus four years ago. ASCE says the U.S. made some modest and incremental improvements in some infrastructure categories, including railroads, drinking water systems and inland waterways and ports.

But 11 of the 17 infrastructure categories evaluated are graded in the "D" range, and as last month's power and water failures due to brutal winter storms and extreme cold show, many infrastructure systems are increasingly susceptible to catastrophic failure.

"This not a report card anyone would be proud to take home," said ASCE Executive Director Thomas Smith in a news release. "We have not made significant enough investments to maintain infrastructure that in some cases was built more than 50 years ago."

Transit system in the U.S. gets the lowest grade, a D-minus, as some 45% of Americans lack access to transit and the existing transit infrastructure, from subway tunnels to station facilities, is aging and in need of repair.

One particular concern is the condition of the nation's bridges. According to the Infrastructure Report Card, 42% of the 617,000 bridges in the U.S. are more than 50 years old, and more than 46,000 of them are rated as structurally deficient. That doesn't mean that they're in danger of collapsing but indicates that they are in poor condition. The number of bridges that slipped from good condition to fair over the last four years increased as well.

Another concern is the state of dams, levees and stormwater systems. Dam and levee failures, like one in Midland, Mich., last year, are happening more often as warming climate creates more severe thunderstorms with heavier rainfall amounts. Stormwater systems are also increasingly being overwhelmed, causing catastrophic flooding.

The engineers' group says the U.S. is spending only half of what it needs to invest in infrastructure improvements just to bring systems up to par, and projects an infrastructure funding shortfall of $2.59 trillion over the next 10 years.

If the country doesn't pay its overdue infrastructure bill, ASCE estimated that the U.S. will lose $10 trillion in economic growth and will lose more than 3 million jobs by 2039.

Crumbling infrastructure costs every American household $3,300 in hidden costs a year, according to ASCE, from lost time and increased fuel consumption while sitting in traffic jams, to extra car repairs due to poor road conditions.

"As this study shows, we risk significant economic losses, higher costs to consumers, businesses and manufacturers – and our quality of life – if we don't act urgently," Smith said. "When we fail to invest in infrastructure, we pay the price."

On the campaign trail, President Biden talked about spending up to $2 trillion over 10 years to upgrade the nation's crumbling infrastructure. And there are signs that his administration could propose a comprehensive infrastructure plan as soon as this month. But both of his predecessors in the White House talked about grandiose infrastructure spending plans, too, but had little success.

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Today, the president meets a bipartisan group of lawmakers to discuss what he calls a critical need improving infrastructure. President Trump, you may recall, spoke of an infrastructure bill throughout his entire presidency, and it never passed. Repeated efforts to focus on infrastructure week were constantly derailed by scandals and conspiracies. Now, recent news spurs a new administration to call attention to infrastructure. Consider the ongoing water crisis in Jackson, Miss., and the widespread power outages last month in Texas. The American Society of Civil Engineers is calling for a massive federal investment. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The days are getting longer, the weather warming up, and as the snow and ice melts away in many parts of the country, that means it's pothole season. The American Society of Civil Engineers says it's also when the nation's underinvestment in infrastructure really shows. Every four years, the group evaluates the conditions of roads and bridges, seaports and airports, water and sewer systems - 17 categories of infrastructure in all - and puts together a detailed infrastructure report card. This year's overall grade is not something to be proud of.


KRISTINA SWALLOW: America's infrastructure GPA is a C-minus.

SCHAPER: Kristina Swallow chairs the committee that puts together the Infrastructure Report Card and says that C-minus is actually up from a D-plus four years ago.


SWALLOW: Unfortunately, though, this means on average, our infrastructure is still in mediocre condition and requires attention.

SCHAPER: And much of it is worse than mediocre. Eight percent of the nation's bridges - 46,000 of them - are rated as structurally deficient. That means many trucks and even school buses may not be able to go over them and must find different routes. Forty percent of the country's roads are crumbling in fair or poor condition. Many dams, levees and stormwater systems are in poor shape, too, and some are at risk of failure. Again, Kristina Swallow.


SWALLOW: Our chronic underinvestment in infrastructure is having real-world impact. The average household will lose $3,300 a year due to underperforming infrastructure.

SCHAPER: That's money lost to flat tires from hitting potholes, lost productivity while sitting in traffic and food thrown away because of power outages, among other costs. There have been some improvements in drinking water and energy systems, freight rail and ports. But the report card shows there's a huge funding shortfall of nearly $2.6 trillion that's needed to bring all infrastructure up to par.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: The disinvestment in infrastructure that's been going on, frankly, for a lifetime is catching up to us.

SCHAPER: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.


BUTTIGIEG: It doesn't have to be this way, but it also won't change unless we make different choices, and that means a meaningful generational investment in our country's infrastructure.

SCHAPER: Buttigieg says now is the time to go bold. His boss, President Biden, is expected to soon propose a plan to spend up to $2 trillion on infrastructure. And he's hoping for bipartisan support. Republicans say they, too, want a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Larry Hogan is the Republican governor of Maryland.


LARRY HOGAN: The fact that infrastructure and investment in infrastructure can be an important part of putting more people to work and helping us come out of and really spur our economic recovery. If we can't find consensus on infrastructure across the aisle, then I'm not sure we can find bipartisan agreement on anything.

SCHAPER: They may, in fact, agree to spend on infrastructure, the problem is how much and how to pay for it. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.