America’s Aging Infrastructure Gets C-Minus On Its Report Card
For the greatest nation in the history of the planet, getting a C-minus for its infrastructure is kind of embarrassing. On the other hand, a C- is a step up from the previous D+ we had prior to this. In fact, it’s the first time we’ve been above a D+ in 20 years.
The Report Card is given every few years by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Founded in 1852, the ASCE is the country’s oldest national civil engineering organization. It represents more than 150,000 civil engineers in academia, government, private practice and industry.
The main categories evaluated (and their marks on an F to A+ scale) are Aviation (D+), Bridges (C), Dams (D), Drinking Water (C-), Hazardous Waste (D+), Inland Waterways (D+), Levees (D), Public Parks (D+), Ports (B-), Rail (B), Roads (D), Schools (D+), Solid Waste (C+), Stormwater (D), Transit (D-), Wastewater (D+) and, my favorite, Energy (C-).
In its last report card in 2017, the ASCE gave an overall grade point average for American infrastructure of D+. The ASCE final grade had remained in the D to D+ range in every report card since 1998. Bizarrely, Rail usually comes in best with a B, just as it did this time.
While not given its own category, nuclear does very well. Its performance and reliability are as high as it can be. The number of operational interruptions are the least of any system. What nuclear power suffers from is politics.
While a C means the infrastructure is in fair to good condition, it still shows general signs of deterioration and requires attention. Some elements exhibit significant deficiencies in conditions and functionality, increasing vulnerability to risk.
But a D means the infrastructure is in fair to poor condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of serious concern with strong risk of failure.
We got a lot of Ds.
This report card isn’t just an interesting academic exercise. It tells us why Texas crapped out last spring when its energy infrastructure couldn’t take a cold spell. It’s why Polar Vortexes shut down the whole northeast in two separate years. It’s why California can’t handle wild fires like they should. It’s why extreme heat waves now come with rolling blackouts.
Not just that, but our aging infrastructure will cost us several trillion dollars over the next several years, money we just can’t afford. Spending that amount on fixing our infrastructure would make us money, as spending on infrastructure always does.
Just ask America from 1950 to 1970. Or China now.
The ASCE has calculated what these costs are. In their 2021 companion study Failure to Act: Economic Impacts of Status Quo Investment Across Infrastructure Systems, they show that failure to spend adequately on infrastructure will cost America $10 trillion in GDP by 2039.
Which brings us to the present infrastructure bill that is almost through Congress and to the President’s desk. It is woefully inadequate at $1 trillion since we need to spend $6 trillion over the rest of this decade. And since it took so much partisan wrangling to achieve, assuming it does pass in the next few days, it is unlikely that another such bill will be forthcoming in the next several years.
The bill provides $110 billion for roads and bridges, but it should be twice that. The bill provides almost $50 billion for airports, ports, and waterways, but needs to be three times that.
Our energy infrastructure needs about $650 billion in investment, but the bill only provides $73 billion, even if this is the largest-ever investment in clean energy transmission and Electric Vehicle infrastructure, and creates a new Grid Deployment Authority to build a 21st century electric grid.
As ASCE puts it, Americans increasingly rely on readily available and uninterrupted electricity to thrive in our interconnected world. Over the last four years, transmission and distribution and reliability-focused pipeline investments have increased, and outages have declined slightly. Annual spending on high voltage transmission lines grew from $15.6 billion in 2012 to $21.9 billion in 2017, while annual spending on distribution systems — the “last mile” of the electricity network — grew 54% over the past two decades. Utilities are taking proactive steps to strengthen the electric grid through resilience measures.
However, weather remains an increasing threat. Among 638 transmission outage events reported from 2014 to 2018, severe weather was cited as the predominant cause. Additionally, distribution infrastructure struggles with reliability, with 92% of all outages occurring along these segments.
But the bill does have some firsts. It makes the largest federal investment in public transit ever, and the largest in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak. It makes the single largest dedicated bridge investment since the construction of the interstate highway system sixty years ago. It makes the largest investment in clean drinking water and waste water infrastructure in American history.
But the public, and their elected officials, don’t understand most of these issues, especially the interconnectedness of various systems. Even in the face of supposed advances in renewable energy, states (and their voters) have refused to pay for the other infrastructure needed to make them work, like high-voltage transmission lines, pumped-hydro storage or back-up generation, even as they vote for more renewables.
Just like the public votes for natural gas plants but votes down the pipelines needed to fuel them, an increasingly dangerous situation facing the northeast.
It’s not just America. South Australia, which relies heavily on solar and wind-generated energy, has been scrambling to find a way to bolster its fragile power grid since the entire state suffered a severe blackout during a storm a few years ago.
So this infrastructure bill had better pass or we’ll fall farther behind in the race to a better world.