Why do we not seem to regard our basic infrastructure needs as a top priority issue? Is it not a fundamental need to take care of our home? Because our nation is our home, a home for all who travel roads, cross bridges and depend upon dams.
At the outset of the Trump administration, infrastructure was heralded as a major undertaking. A signature promise of the president’s 2016 campaign was to spend $550 billion over 10 years, double what was proposed by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The pledge was to upgrade the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and dams, with some 3.3 million jobs created along the way.
For a while, it actually seemed that something might happen. The American Society of Civil Engineers had given the nation’s infrastructure a grade of “D+” in 2016. And, the price tag was pretty big — more than $1 trillion — as a meaningful beginning.
Then, in 2018, there seemed to be some movement. Trump proposed to inject $200 billion in a formal infrastructure proposal. But, alas, the proposal did not gain traction. Nothing happened.
Then again, in May of 2019, there was a tentative agreement between Trump and Democratic leaders for a $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Then, yet again, infrastructure was pushed back, as the political discourse became more and more vitriolic.
However, as with all housekeeping, the need does not go away, and the cost rises. The American Society of Civil Engineers says that $588 billion is needed immediately for roads, bridges and dams. Other experts tell us it could be more.
Tackling deferred maintenance should be the top priority in all three areas, Richard Geddes, professor and founding director of the Cornell University Program in Infrastructure Policy, has written.
“When each type of facility is designed and constructed, there is a set schedule to keep each dam, road or bridge in a state of good repair. The problem is that, when budgets become tight, infrastructure maintenance becomes one of the easier things to defer until next year, and then the year after, and so on. Sadly, if scheduled maintenance is deferred for too long, then major repairs are required. Those major repairs end up being much more costly than responsible maintenance would have been.”
For roads, the American Society of Civil Engineers report card grade is a “D.” One out of every 5 miles of highway pavement is in poor condition, and “our roads have a significant and increasing backlog of rehabilitation needs,” according to the report card, which pegs the cost of clearing the backlog at $420 billion.
A November 2019 report by the Federal Highway Administration says doing all highway work deemed as cost beneficial would cost nearly $136 billion per year.
For bridges, the American Society of Civil Engineers report card grade is a “C+.” The condition of the 616,096 bridges in the 50 states, according to the latest annual tallies, as of Dec. 31, 2018, from the Federal Highway Administration is: 283,316, Good (46 percent); 285,676, Fair (46.4 percent); and for the other 47,054, Poor (7.6 percent).
Fixing the backlog of bridge problems would cost at least $123 billion, according to the report card. And, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association goes higher, saying it would cost $171 billion to make fixes to 235,000 bridges that need some kind of repair immediately.
“Bridges have been prioritized for increased funding, and that funding has targeted structurally deficient bridges and bridges “past their design life,” said Kevin Heaslip, a Virginia Tech professor of civil and environmental engineering focusing on transportation infrastructure. The cost for the foreseeable total is more than $600 billion.
At the current rate of repair, it would take 80 years to fix all the nearly 1,100 miles worth of bridges rated as poor, according to an April 2019 American Road and Transportation Builders Association report based on federal data.
For dams, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives us a grade of “D.” The cost would be $45 billion “to repair aging, yet critical, high-hazard potential dams,” according to the report card.
Meanwhile, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials puts forth two figures: $70 billion to fix the dams in need of rehabilitation and $24 billion just to fix the “most critical” ones.
“Public safety is the driver for investment” for both bridges and the 90,580 dams across the country, Virginia Tech’s Heaslip says. “The threat of bridge and dam failures places people and property at significant risk.”
Will it take a fallen bridge or a catastrophic dam failure to awaken us? Do we have the wisdom and resolve to act before a catastrophe?
Don Tortorice is a former attorney and professor at the Law School of the College of William and Mary.