America’s infrastructure gets a D+. That’s not as bad as it sounds.

March 19, 2013

There's bad news and surprisingly good news in the latest report card on U.S. infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers.


Now with 10 percent less fail. (The Washington Post)

The gloomy bit: America's infrastructure only warrants a D+, with the ASCE estimating that we'll need to spend an extra $1.6 trillion between now and 2020 to patch things up.

Yet experts say we should approach this figure skeptically. The ASCE is very good at pointing out engineering deficiencies in our infrastructure — but not so good on whether it's actually beneficial  to upgrade. "We need this report to point out problems," says Joshua Schank of the Eno Center on Transportation. "But if you're thinking about policy, you have to think more broadly than that."

Indeed, it's worth noting that the ASCE always gives U.S. infrastructure poor grades. From reading past reports, you'd get the impression that it's a miracle the United States is even a functioning country. And it's hardly surprising that an engineering group is in favor of trillions in additional spending on civil-engineering projects.

So perhaps the most notable part of this year's report is that ASCE thinks our infrastructure is actually getting better in some areas. For the first time in 15 years, the grade for U.S. infrastructure rose, from a D to a D+. And six areas have seen improvement since 2009, including roads, bridges, rail, drinking water, solid waste disposal and wastewater treatment. Two big examples:

1) U.S. rail is getting better: Rail in particular has seen some big upgrades in the past few years, partly thanks to stimulus money but largely due to private investment: "In 2010 alone," the report notes, "freight railroads renewed the rails on more than 3,100 miles of railroad track, equivalent to going coast to coast. Since 2009, capital investment from both freight and passenger railroads has exceeded $75 billion."

2) So are our roads: America's roads have also become sturdier in recent years, thanks to an uptick in federal stimulus spending as well as increased investments from states and the rise of private-public partnerships — overall investments have now increased to $91 billion per year.

True, congestion is still a big issue in many cities. Yet, oddly enough, the report only focuses on pouring new pavement as a solution to traffic jams, rather than policies like congestion pricing. "That's another big limitation of the report," says Schank, who also points out that U.S. traffic safety has actually been improving in recent years despite all this poor pavement.

That said, most of the report tends to emphasize the problems and pitfalls with our existing infrastructure. Here are a few examples that don't usually get much attention:

1) Dams are still hazardous: The ASCE estimates that there are now 13,991 dams classified as "high hazard," meaning that if they fail, people might die. Yes, this really can happen: In 2010, the Iowa Lake Delhi dam caused $120 million in damage and swept away dozens of homes when it failed during a heavy rainstorm. Many of these high-hazard dams are now quite old.

This isn't necessarily an issue for Congress, however. The report notes that most of the nation's dams are privately owned and inspected by states. Yet many states don't do a great job at inspections. "In South Carolina, just one and a half dam safety inspectors are responsible for the 2,380 dams that are spread throughout the state," the report notes. "Alabama remains the only state without a dam safety regulatory program."

2) America's drinking-water pipes are old (but still safe): This is one of the big-ticket expenditures — the ASCE notes that our water pipes are nearing the "end of their useful life" and will cost $1 trillion to replace. Water main breaks are also becoming more common.

Yet the report has a hard time mustering a case for why this is an urgent problem: "Even though pipes and mains are frequently more than 100 years old and in need of replacement, outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are rare."

3) Our inland waterways are clogged up: Not an issue that gets much play, but some $152 billion worth of goods moves through the nations navigable water channels, including bulk goods like grain and steel. The ASCE finds that these waterways are in very poor condition, with an average of 52 delays per day — a big increase in the past decade that now costs "industry and consumers hundreds of millions of dollars annually." A big chunk of the delays are in the Ohio and Mississippi River.

Again, however, the report only notes that these delays are happening — it doesn't say anything about whether it would be cost-effective or worthwhile to expand certain locks, for instance. That's a subject for a more detailed analysis.

There are plenty more examples in the complete ASCE report card here, as well as a state-by-state look at infrastructure shortfalls here.

Further reading:

— Is Congress really going to miss its free lunch on infrastructure?

— Is America's infrastructure really so bad?

— More and more states are privatizing their infrastructure.

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Dylan Matthews · March 19, 2013