ASCE Report: U.S. Transportation Infrastructure Needs Investment

The American Society of Civil Engineers report on the state of U.S. infrastructure reiterated the need for investment in transportation networks, especially for bridges as the “letter grade” for that infrastructure category declined in 2021 versus the organization’s 2017 report.

[Above photo by RIDOT.]

ASCE’s 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave U.S. infrastructure an overall C- grade and while that marked an improvement over the D+ grade from the group’s 2017 report card and is the highest overall grade in 20 years, it found that the nation’s long-term infrastructure investment gap continues to grow.

According to the group’s report, that “investment gap” increased to $2.59 trillion compared to $2.2 trillion in its report four year ago – meaning that funding gap climbed by nearly $260 billion per year since 2017.

Tom Smith

“We have not made the investments to maintain infrastructure that in some cases was built more than 50 years ago,” noted ASCE Executive Director Tom Smith in a statement. “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. When we fail to invest in infrastructure, we pay the price.”

Using an A to F school report card format, ASCE’s report assessed current infrastructure conditions and needs across 17 categories. The individual 2021 grades ranged from a “B” for rail to a “D- “for transit. Despite incremental gains, 11 of the 17 categories received a grade in the “D” range, including roads, while five category grades – aviation (D+), drinking water (C-), energy (C-), inland waterways (D+), and ports (B-) – increased from its 2017 report. However, one category – bridges – declined to a “C” grade.

Some of fiscal data ASCE compiled for its 2021 report card where transportation investment is concerned include:

  • The estimated cost of the nation’s backlog of bridge repair needs is $125 billion. Spending on bridges needs to increase by 58 percent from $14.4 billion annually to $22.7 billion annually, ASCE said, to improve bridge conditions. At the current rate of investment, it will take until 2071 to make all of the repairs that are currently necessary, the group noted.
  • Roads are critical for moving an ever-increasing number of people and goods, ASCE said. Yet those “vital lifelines” are frequently underfunded, ASCE said, with more than 40 percent of the system now in poor or mediocre condition.
  • Currently, there is a $176 billion transit backlog, ASCE said – a deficit expected to grow to more than $270 billion through 2029. Meanwhile, transit ridership is declining – a trend compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Failure to address the transit revenue shortfall will only exacerbate ridership declines as service cuts mean that trip delays and reliability issues become more frequent, the group noted.
  • The nation’s inland waterways system still reports a $6.8 billion backlog in construction projects and ongoing lock closures totaling 5,000 hours between 2015 and 2019. That harms industries, especially agriculture, relying on the waterways to get their goods to market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates delays cost up to $739 per hour for an average barge tow or $44 million per year.
  • While freight railroads maintain strong levels of investment largely through direct shipper fees – investing on average more than $260,000 per mile – passenger rail requires government investment. Plagued by a lack of federal support, passenger rail faces a current state of good repair backlog at $45.2 billion.

Kristina Swallow – chair of ASCE’s Committee on America’s Infrastructure and director of the Nevada Department of Transportation – hosted a question-and-answer session with key lawmakers and federal agency leaders as part of the March 3 rollout of the ASCE’s 2021 report card.

USDOT Sec. Pete Buttigieg at right. Photo by USDOT.

As part of that discussion, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg emphasized that a more “bottom-up approach to programs and funding” for infrastructure investment is necessary.

“It’s going to help us marshal the full power of American ingenuity, innovation, and capacity,” Buttigieg said. “Because all the answers don’t have to come from Washington; it’s just that more of the resources should. [That’s why] I’m also looking forward with state, local, territorial, [and] tribal partners – communities that have often made tough decisions to vote in measures to raise the revenue for infrastructure.”

ASCE also noted in a 12-page report released in September 2020 that the “cumulative investment gap” between what the United States currently spends on surface transportation infrastructure versus what it needs to spend to decrease traffic congestion and maintain its assets in a state of good repair is approximately $5 trillion in 2019 dollars.

Photo by the Michigan DOT

The ASCE said that report – entitled Failure to Act: The Implications of Investment Trends in our Surface Transportation Infrastructure – focuses on the impact of transportation deficiencies on U.S. economic performance. It also quantifies the “existing gap” between what the nation currently spends on bridges, roads, and transit systems versus what is needed to get the systems into a “state of good repair.”

Subsequently, the report extends these trends out to 2039 to explore how underinvestment affects everything from personal household income to overall economic competitiveness.

Victoria Sheehan

Victoria Sheehan, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and the 2020-2021 president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, touched on some of those same issues during a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing on February 24 – especially where federal funding is concerned.

“States like New Hampshire rely especially heavily upon the federal surface transportation program in order to enable the necessary infrastructure investments for our citizens,” she explained in her testimony.

“And a stable federal surface transportation program has become even more crucial as [we] deal with the continued loss of state revenue due to the impacts of the [COVID-19] pandemic,” Sheehan stressed. “Any delay – or even worse, a series of short-term extensions – would wreak havoc across the country. [It] would impact not just state DOTs but our partners such as local governments and the construction industry.”

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