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$836-Billion Capital Gap, Slow Progress in ASCE’s Latest Infrastructure Report Card

Bill Cramer

The United States still faces an $836-billion capital investment gap for highways and bridges, four years after the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) last raised the alarm in its quadrennial report card on the country’s infrastructure.

The 2017 report card was released yesterday, and while it shows marginal improvements in rail, port, and inland waterway systems, it has little to report in surface transportation: the nation’s bridges get a C+ grade, roads receive a D, and America’s overall infrastructure rating is a D+, the same grade given in 2013.

“We salute ASCE and its members for their continued efforts to sound the alarm about the fragile state of America’s infrastructure,” said IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick D. Jones. “With this report, it has never been clearer that we need to invest much more in our nation’s future.

He added that “today, more than ever before, we must rise to the occasion and do for our grandchildren what our grandparents did for us. They sacrificed some of their present happiness to ensure that future generations would be able to live in a world at least as good, and probably better, than the world they lived in.

The $836-Billion Surface Transportation Gap

The top-line number in the assessment of America’s surface transportation is the $836-billion gap in capital investment for major infrastructure, including $420 billion for existing highways, $123 billion for bridge repairs, $167 billion for system expansion, and $126 billion for a variety of system enhancements.

And talk about ROI: “The Federal Highway Administration estimates that each dollar spent on road, highway, and bridge improvements returns $5.20 in the form of lower vehicle maintenance costs, decreased delays, reduced fuel consumption, improved safety, lower road and bridge maintenance costs, and reduced emissions as a result of improved traffic flow,” states ASCE’s backgrounder on surface transportation.

But that potential is far from today’s reality. “America’s roads are often crowded, frequently in poor condition, chronically underfunded, and are becoming more dangerous,” ASCE warns.

“More than two out of every five miles of America’s urban interstates are congested and traffic delays cost the country $160 billion in wasted time and fuel in 2014. One out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition and our roads have a significant and increasing backlog of rehabilitation needs. After years of decline, traffic fatalities increased by 7% from 2014 to 2015, with 35,092 people dying on America’s roads.”

All of which underscores IBTTA’s consistent, persistent arguments for a sharp increase in infrastructure investments, and for tolling as one of the key mechanisms to deliver the mix of public and private dollars that will get the job done.

Slow Progress for Fast Infrastructure

For surface transportation infrastructure that is supposed to keep America moving fast, ASCE documents a pace of change that has been awfully slow.

The report card calculates the cost of congestion at $160 billion, up sharply from $101 billion four years ago.

The proportion of structurally deficient bridges is down from 11% to 9.1% in four years. But there are still 56,000 in need of upgrades, and the average age of the country’s bridges has increased marginally, from 42 to 43 years.

Moreover, the 2013 report card noted that the 11% of structures considered deficient took in 33% of the country’s decking area, indicating that upgrades were concentrated on smaller, less complex projects. Four years later, while the proportion of structurally deficient bridges is down 17%, the number of daily trips over structurally deficient bridges has fallen just 10%, from 210 to 188 million—still a truly boggling figure.

That could mean the bigger, tougher jobs are still being postponed until reliable, long-term funding is available to get them done.

The Road Ahead: A Call for Courageous Leadership

With the White House and Capitol Hill both actively engaged on a major infrastructure funding package, this year’s report card couldn’t have been better timed. But the details in the release point to the scope of the challenge.

“The ASCE report card points out that we invest only 2.5% of GDP in infrastructure and that we need to ramp that up to 3.5% of GDP,” Jones notes. “To get there, we need courageous leadership from the president and Congress. Nothing else will be sufficient to convince the American people that we need to invest more—now.”

Jones stressed that tolling “is one of the most powerful and effective tools to ensure that our tolled highways, bridges, tunnels, and managed lanes are well maintained and have the capital they need to make continued improvements.”

For courageous leadership on surface transportation funding and financing, look no farther than IBTTA’s Summit on Finance, Policy and VMT, April 23-25, 2017 in Jersey City, NJ. Register today!