Advocating to Raise U.S. Infrastructure Grades
Who holds the government accountable for sustaining U.S. infrastructure? Thanks to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the public has the tools they need to understand where states are failing to keep public works up to grade—and to hold local, state, and national representatives accountable.
Years of underinvestment in aging U.S. infrastructure has resulted in the deterioration of major public works assets, including roads, bridges, transit services, schools, and even access to clean drinking water. These systems affect every major city and community in the United States, and, if the need to improve them is unmet, they will become public health and safety risks. On an individual level, the risk equates to the loss of public amenities such as electricity in homes, longer commutes due to fewer public transit options, and in a worst-case scenario, failing roads and bridges. If the U.S. continues to underinvest in infrastructure, Americans will experience decreasing levels of service over time that will result in $7 trillion in lost business sales and 2.5 million lost jobs by 2025. The economic impact of these issues currently costs taxpayers an estimated $3,400 in disposable income annually, or $9 a day. The overall effect on the nation’s economic performance is an expected loss of $4 trillion in gross domestic product (GDP).
Up against that challenge, the American Society of Civil Engineers sought solutions through investment, leadership, planning, and preparation for the future, leading to the devopment of their Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.
The research approach and methodology for ASCE’s first version of the report card was heavily inspired by the report “Fragile Foundations: A Report on America’s Public Works” developed by National Council on Public Works Improvement. When ACSE learned the federal government would no longer update the report, the association adopted the charge to develop the first ASCE report card in 1998.
For each report card, ASCE gathers data and reports for each infrastructure sector through federal government agencies whenever possible. Other sources include publicly mandated nonprofit corporations and industry groups. The Committee on America’s Infrastructure includes a team of over 30 dedicated civil engineers who assess and evaluate the data against key criteria, including capacity, condition, funding, future need, operations and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation. Grades are given on a scale of A, B, C, D, and F.
The committee assesses the 16 infrastructure categories (aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, ports, public parks, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit, and wastewater) state-by-state, giving each state a grade, as well as a comprehensive grade for the country. This research has produced detailed information about specific infrastructure investment opportunities.
As a complement to the report card, ASCE periodically issues “Failure to Act: Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future,” which details the research behind the report card and the critical implications of failing infrastructure. The last series of reports was released in 2016; an update is underway and due out in October 2020. ASCE also produces the Infrastructure Super Map, which provides the public with an interactive look at findings from the research, including the total number of bridges in the United States, the states with the worst bridges, and professional recommendations for how to solve these issues.
ASCE has issued six Report Cards between 1998 and 2017. A new Report Card is issued every four years, with the next iteration anticipated for 2021. ASCE has used the research to develop a comprehensive public awareness campaign, supported by citizens and politicians alike. Parallel to the 2016 report and the 2017 Report Card, ASCE launched a vibrant and dynamic website as a public-facing communication resource to connect and concisely explain the research, findings, and impact.
This work has resulted in ongoing development behind public awareness and legislative support. By building support behind investment, leadership, and preparation for the future, the program has inspired public discussion and debate around infrastructure topics, most notably through the 2016 and 2020 American presidential elections.
In 2007, the I-35W bridge spanning the Mississippi River in Minnesota collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 and injuring 145. We often assume our infrastructure is in good working order, and yet the reality is that a large portion of our infrastructure systems are over 50 years old and require ongoing maintenance. Deferred maintenance due to lack of reliable funding makes these systems vulnerable to deterioration and, ultimately, failure.
The well-established and highly visible report card is making a serious impact, gaining support from the public and legislators behind the need for infrastructure improvements. Former presidents, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have referenced the report card in their prior work behind infrastructure investment. Even news organizations including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, National Public Radio, NBC’s Today Show, 60 Minutes, and CBS Evening News have all cited the report card in their coverage. With increased public awareness, ASCE aims to inspire a commitment from all levels of government and the private sector across the United States in order to prevent public and health safety risks and reduce the potential financial impact on Americans.
“Who better to be the stewards of infrastructure issues than civil engineers? When we looked at the legislative landscape, a lot of it was infrastructure-related, whether it was funding issues, research issues, policy issues, water, transportation, and the environment. All of the subdisciplines of the profession had ways to engage in this. It was a way of involving a lot of our members and addressing a new push from our presidential officers for more engagement by the civil engineering professionals in public policy. It was seen as a professional responsibility to engage in these issues, and fundamental to the professionalism of civil engineers.” —Casey Dinges, Senior Managing Director, ASCE
“Infrastructure is not a Republican or Democrat [issue]. If you want to grow American business, you’ve got to have the most modern ports, airports, locks and dams, and you’ve got to be able to get your product from the factory to the customer quickly.” —Former Vice President Joe Biden
The American Society of Civil Engineeds, The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/
The American Society of Civil Engineers “Failure to Act: Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future ASCE”, 2016, https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/the-impact/failure-to-act-report/
CSPAN, February 16, 2020 Infrastructure Forum at UNLV https://www.c-span.org/video/?469280-1/democratic-presidential-candidates-speak-infrastructure-forum