Bumps in the Road

Features - Feature

America's infrastructure sees slight improvement in a 2013 report card but still has a long way to go

July 22, 2013
Robert Victor, P.E.

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The recent collapse of the Interstate 5 Skagit Riv- er Bridge in Washington once again brought to the forefront the importance of modernizing U.S. bridges. It was also a sobering reminder that we must invest in America’s infrastructure in order to maintain our quality of life and compete in an ever-changing, global economy.

While the exact cause of the collapse is still under investigation, one thing is clear: the Skagit River Bridge was classified as functionally obsolete, which means that the bridge no longer met the current standards that are used today.

Not only does the loss of this bridge severely disrupt traffic and profoundly impact the lives of area residents who rely on it to get to work each day, it has also has a ripple effect on the economy in Washington state. Businesses have temporarily lost a major artery to get goods from point A to point B and the ability of emergency vehicles to move quickly has been greatly impacted.

But bridges are just one of many sectors of U.S. infrastructure that are in dire need of attention. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently released its 2013 Report Card grading the nation’s infrastructure in 16 categories. While America’s cumulative GPA for infrastructure rose slightly to a D+ from our last report card in 2009, this is certainly not a grade worth celebrating. An overall grade of D+ is not acceptable if we expect to compete in the global economy.

Since the first Report Card was issued nearly 15 years ago, the grades have been poor, averaging only a grade of D, because of delayed maintenance and underinvestment across most categories. We estimate that across all categories of infrastructure the total investment needed by 2020 is approximately $3.6 trillion. After estimated likely spending, we are left with a shortfall of $1.6 trillion by 2020, just over $200 billion a year.

Grades By Sector

More than 200 million trips are taken daily across deficient bridges in the nation’s 102 largest metropolitan regions. In total, one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient, while the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is currently 42 years.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that to eliminate the nation’s deficient bridge backlog by 2028, we would need to invest $20.5 billion annually, while only $12.8 billion is being spent currently. The challenge for federal, state and local governments is to increase bridge investments by $8 billion annually with dwindling transportation funds to address these pressing needs. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Highway Trust Fund will be bankrupt near the end of 2014.

Despite these challenges, bridges saw an overall improvement from the last assessment, receiving a grade of C+, and the number of structurally deficient bridges is on the decline.

The nation’s roads received a grade of D. Forty-two percent of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually. While the conditions have improved recently, current investment levels of $91 billion annually are still projected to result in a decline in conditions and performance in the long term. The FHWA estimates that $170 billion in capital investment would be needed on an annual basis to significantly improve conditions and performance.

Solid Waste:
One category that has consistently received the highest grade on the Report Card is solid waste. With an improved grade this year of B-, there is much to be learned by studying this category. In 2010, Americans recycled 85 million tons of the 250 million tons of trash generated. This represents a 34 percent recycling rate, more than double the 14.5 percent recycled in 1980. And today, when we are facing a new challenge because of the increasing volume of electronic scrap, we are exploring solutions like disposal fees built in to the up-front cost of the product and voluntary involvement by manufacturers and distributors in recycling and disposing of waste.

While there has been undeniable success in the cleanup of the nation’s hazardous waste and brownfield sites, this subsector is still plagued with challenges and received a grade of D in the 2013 Report Card. Annual funding for Superfund site cleanup is estimated to be as much as $500 million short of what is needed, and 1,280 sites remain on the National Priorities List.

Solving the Problem
The four years since our last Report Card have demonstrated that our infrastructure problem can be solved if we have leadership that commits to making good ideas a reality. When cities and states work together in innovative ways to prioritize and implement projects, we can improve and modernize our nation’s infrastructure. We also saw greater private investment in several categories, and some categories benefited from short-term boosts in federal funding.

And there’s further reason for optimism. Bipartisan legislation to help rebuild America’s infrastructure was recently introduced in Congress. The Partnership to Build America Act of 2013 (H.R. 2084) proposes establishing an infrastructure fund using repatriated corporate earnings and public-private partnerships for the nation’s critical transportation, energy, communications, water and education sectors. This key legislation would create another innovative financing source for our nation’s infrastructure.

Yet to begin seeing tangible results nationwide across all 16 sectors, we must seek and adopt a wide range of solutions.

ASCE has developed three key solutions to begin raising the grades. First, we need to increase leadership in infrastructure renewal—at all levels of government—local, state, and federal. America’s infrastructure needs bold leadership and a compelling vision. We also need to eliminate the backlog of deficiencies. Substandard roads, bridges, water systems and other infrastructure systems inhibit commerce, stifle economic growth and grow costlier the longer we wait to fix them.

Second, we need to promote sustainability and resilience. Events like the devastating tornadoes that recently hit Oklahoma and Hurricane Sandy remind us of how vulnerable our infrastructure systems can be to extreme weather. As infrastructure is built or rehabilitated, life cycle cost and resilience should be a part of the analysis.

Finally, we must agree on how to prioritize and fund infrastructure investments that position our nation for the future. We must establish reliable, dedicated funding sources to meet the needs of current and future users and to support ongoing system maintenance.

Signs of Success

Descriptions of two infrastructure upgrade success stories are online at:

Our infrastructure systems connect the nation’s businesses, communities and people. In the short term, we need a national commitment to bring existing infrastructure into a state of good repair. In the long term, we must modernize and build in a targeted and strategic manner.

The time for us to act and get involved is now. We need to call on our elected officials to make infrastructure a priority. We need engaged leadership at all levels of government and a national commitment to fix our infrastructure.

Only then will we see a report card that we’ll be proud to share with our nation and the world. C&DR

**ASCE has developed a new Report Card digital app. The app includes videos, interactive maps, and
info-graphics that tell the story behind the grades. The Report Card also gives key facts for all 50 states,
including examples of initiatives and innovations that are making a difference, and points to solutions for
raising the grades in infrastructure sectors. It is available for download at

The author is a member of board of direction and chair of 2013 Report Card on America’s Infrastructure, American Society of Civil Engineers.