The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the nation’s infrastructure a "D+" and estimated the necessary infrastructure investment will reach $3.6 trillion by 2020.
While the organization ranked the current state of the nation’s bridges and rail both at "C+" and gave U.S. ports at a "C," roads and aviation infrastructure were both given Ds.
In the organization’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, released every four years, modal infrastructure is evaluated based on funding, operations, maintenance, capacity, condition and a variety of other factors.
The U.S. airport system accommodates more than $562 billion in cargo annually, but ASCE found glaring problems with funding crumbling aviation infrastructure that must be met for cargo growth to increase. For instance, the Federal Aviation Administration estimated air congestion cost
$22 biliion in 2012, which will rise to $34 billion in 2020 and $63
billion in 2040.
Funding for aviation, at the same time, is stagnating. The largest source of this funding is the FAA’s Airway Trust Fund, which was just authorized by Congress at $13.4 billion over the next four years but is down a bit from the last authorization. ASCE found that since 2001, ATF expenditures have topped $3 billion a year. Essential airport projects on tap between 2011 and 2015 were to account for $80.1 billion overall. This would lead to a funding gap, after taking into account the ATF and all the other funding sources, of $2.2 billion a year from 2012 to 2020. The FAA’s NextGen project funding adds more than $2 billion annually to the investment needs.
The organization suggests increasing airport modernization efforts through the NextGen program and funding this with a dedicated monetary source like the fuel tax, in addition to encouraging airports themselves to innovate when taking on new infrastructure projects. ASCE also encouraged a proper management of the current FAA programs and funding systems, while maximizing use of the Airway Trust Fund.
“The health of our nation’s bridges is directly tied to the nation’s ability to compete in a global marketplace,” ASCE wrote in its report. “Therefore, it is of growing concern that the bridges in our nation’s metropolitan areas, which are an indispensable link for both millions of commuters and freight on a daily basis, are decaying more rapidly than our rural bridges.”
ASCE cited that 210 million daily trips traverse bridges in need of repair. Last year more than 66,000 bridges fell into the structurally deficient category, while more than 84,000 were classified as functionally obsolete. The states with the largest number of bridge issues are Pennsylvania, Iowa and Oklahoma.
Bridge funding is currently facing a backlog of $121 billion, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and this would necessitate an annual investment of $20.5 billion to eliminate the deficit by 2028. The United States spends $12.8 billion annually on its bridges.
Making bridge repair a No. 1 priority and increasing annual investment levels will go a long way to helping resolve the issue, ASCE wrote. The organization has also called for a national strategic plan to address bridge work and an 8-percent reduction in structurally deficient bridges by 2020.
Calling the nation’s 12,000 miles of inland waterways “the hidden backbone of our freight network,” the organization suggested prioritizing capital projects on a ranking of risk, reward and economic return. The government must also increase spending on waterways, generating money from the barge fuel tax or by implementing a user fee, and establish a national freight policy that will include waterways, the organization wrote.
Waterways Council International President Michael J. Toohey took the "D" rating for the waterways as a call to action.
“While this grade is not surprising since the nation has not properly invested in the inland waterways infrastructure, it is still disappointing,” he said. “There is, however, momentum within Congress now to make meaningful changes to increase funding for lock and dams and we remain hopeful about that.”
The Army Corps of Engineers said 95 percent of overseas trade by volume moves through the nation’s ports, and although improvements of $46 billion are planned until 2016, federal funding has declined. The organization pointed out that the Panama Canal expansion will be complete in 2015, and the rest of the ports in the United States need to be ready to reap the benefits. Connections to other modes need to be improved, among other things.
The organization suggested targeted federal investments, which includes restoring funding levels to the Corps of Engineers; direct funds for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund; and the establishment of reliable funding mechanisms. Developing a national freight plan that calls for better modal connections to ports is also important, ASCE said.
The organization noted that while rail has been investing heavily in infrastructure, increasing monetary spend during the recession, more still needs to be done. Since the 1980s, the freight side of railroads has benefitted from $500 billion in work adding new tracks, straightening tight turns, expanding tunnel heights and other forms of capital investment. Freight railroads shoulder a big amount of the upkeep for the nation’s tracks and have used public and private money to accomplish this, the organization wrote.
To move forward successfully, rail needs to be integrated into the national transportation policy. Supporting a regulatory and financial environment beneficial to rail freight is also important.
All in all, the nation’s modal infrastructure challenges, coupled with drinking water, energy, hazardous waste and other areas that need infrastructure improvement, the nation’s current outlook appears a bit grim. ASCE President Gregory E. DiLoreto acknowledged this fact, but chose to provide a bit of optimism; after all, the nation’s overall grade point average has jumped up from a D since the last time the report card was submitted in 2009.
"A D+ is simply unacceptable for anyone serious about strengthening our nation's economy; however, the 2013 Report Card shows that this problem can be solved,” he said. “If we want to create jobs, increase trade and assure the safety of our children, then infrastructure investment is the answer.” - Jon Ross