Civil Engineers' Report Card: Some Transportation Infrastructure Grades Show Uptick; Additional Investment & Leadership Needed

Efforts by states and communities to move forward with infrastructure investment were among the reasons some areas of transportation saw improvement in recent years, according to a new report from the American Society of Civil Engineers that provides a treasure trove of information for state officials about exactly what the nation faces.

ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure is a once-every-four-years assessment of 16 infrastructure categories (including seven transportation-related ones) based on eight criteria: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation.

The overall infrastructure received a cumulative GPA of a D+ in the 2013 report, up from a D four years ago. Roads (D), bridges (C+) and rail (C+) all saw improvement since 2009. But ASCE officials caution that many of the grades remain unacceptable if the nation wants to avoid deficient infrastructure becoming a significant drag on the nation’s economy and they say a $3.6 trillion combined investment in infrastructure from all levels of government is needed by 2020. Given currently expected investment levels of $2 trillion over the period, that leaves a $1.6 trillion shortfall or $201 billion annually.

The report card notes that “when investments are made and projects move forward, the grades rise.” The rail industry took advantage of the economic downturn when there was less traffic in the freight rail system to invest on the order of $10 billion annually in their infrastructure. As a result, their grade jumped up two steps from a C- to C+, ASCE said. Other infrastructure areas, including drinking water and wastewater, saw some improvement partially as a result of the significant boost in funding those areas saw under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

But ASCE officials also cite states and cities picking up the slack as a factor that made a difference, especially in the transportation categories. Instead of waiting for moribund federal funding to rebound, many have moved ahead on their own, passing numerous ballot initiatives at the local level to increase revenues for transportation and targeting the most vulnerable structurally deficient bridges at the state level, for example.

While there is a positive story to tell in some respects on the transportation side, it has by far the largest investment need—10 times that of the other infrastructure areas. ASCE notes that 42 percent of America’s urban highways are congested. Although the number of structurally deficient bridges appears to be on the decline, the number of deficient bridges that carry the most traffic in urban areas continues to rise. The nation also faces a significant backlog of overdue maintenance across all infrastructure and a pressing need for modernization, the report card finds.   

ASCE previously detailed the economic impacts of not investing in infrastructure in a series of reports called “Failure to Act.” Deficient infrastructure is a drag on the economy that hurts GDP, job growth, household income, consumer spending and competitiveness in the global economy, ASCE has found.   

“Infrastructure is the foundation that connects the nation’s businesses, communities and people, driving our economy and improving our quality of life,” the report card’s vision statement reads. “In the short term we need a national commitment to bring existing infrastructure into a state-of-good-repair, and in the long term we must modernize and build in a targeted and strategic manner.”

ASCE says this will require leaders at all levels of government and in the private sector to communicate the importance of the nation’s infrastructure and to craft innovative solutions. To that end, the report card includes three general solutions they say can begin raising the grades: increasing leadership in infrastructure, promoting sustainability and resilience, and developing and funding plans to maintain and enhance America’s infrastructure.

The report card is chock full of statistics on every state with colorful info-graphics explaining the needs in simple terms. There are also specific recommendations for raising the grades in each infrastructure area as well as success stories from every state with examples of projects and programs that are working to raise the grade there. Photos and video help tell the story as well. The report card website makes it easy to share any of the information with constituents, colleagues and friends on social media and the report card is also available as a smartphone and tablet app. So state officials and others now have no excuse not to keep the information handy as they make the case for infrastructure investment in their own communities.

Coming Soon: 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure: The CSG Webinar

The ASCE Report Card will be the focus of a CSG webinar next month. Brian Pallasch, ASCE’s managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives (and, in recent years, a frequent speaker at CSG national meetings and transportation policy academies), will join us on Thursday April 4th at 2pm EDT to take us through the report, talk about what’s new in the latest edition and field questions about its findings. We’ll also discuss how state policymakers and others can use the information contained in the report card as we’re joined by Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle. Registration for the free webinar is available here.

Other Infrastructure News

  • Some initial reaction to the ASCE report card is rolling in from transportation stakeholders and advocates:

AAA President & CEO Robert Darbeinet: “We don’t want a C+ economy, and can’t settle for a D, or even C+ transportation system. We need Congress to take the lead, work toward a long-term funding solution and ensure the American public understands the importance of investing in our transportation system before we fall further behind.”

AASHTO Executive Director Bud Wright: “This Report Card accentuates the need for a long-term, sustainable funding source for surface transportation. By connecting greater investment in transportation projects to measurable improvements in efficiency and connectivity, the report demonstrates why adequate infrastructure investment is key to our future economic prosperity."

Ed Rendell, former Pennsylvania Governor and co-chair of Building America’s Future: “There were some bright spots on the Report Card, and we applaud those sectors that showed improvement. We’re seeing positive effects of investment in our nation’s rail systems, and we know many cities and states are stepping up to invest more in repair and maintenance of roads, bridges and highways. The President’s stimulus funding also had a short run positive effect. But we urgently need the federal government to set long-term national infrastructure priorities and get serious about funding those critical projects that will allow our economy to thrive and to compete globally.”