The American Society of Civil Engineers released its 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure last week, giving the nation a D+ overall for the state of its roads, bridges, levees, aviation, dams, energy, etc. Generally, that puts the country somewhere between "poor" and "mediocre." Sounds about right.
There is some mild good news. ASCE does this report ever four years, and the country's infrastructure actually showed improvement since 2009 and 2005, when the all-around grade sat stubbornly at a D. Of course, in 2001, the grade was a D+. But then again, it was a D in 1998. The country's infrastructure is definitely a problem student.
Let's put this in perspective. These engineers are not grading on a curve. To get an A under ASCE's framework, the utility under its inspection needs to be "exceptional." That has never happened. The highest overall grade, a C, came in 1988 from a similar report card issued by the National Council on Public Works. (ASCE cautions against making direct comparisons between the 1988 report card and the grades issued in the last 15 years because the categories and measuring tactics are different.)
Excluding 1988, then, the only infrastructure category that has ever earned above a C is solid waste disposal, which was rated at a B- this year. That's somewhere between "mediocre" and "good." That's because people are recycling. ASCE applauded the 34 percent recycling rate, which has doubled since 1980.
Even though the grades persistently hover around Ds, the report card is useful because it provides the transportation community the ammunition to push for more infrastructure investment. The players all weighed in when the report was released, saying more or less the same thing--the economy depends on a functioning roads, railways, aviation, [fill in the blank]. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., used the report to plug his legislation creating an infrastructure fund within the Transportation Department. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., used the report to plug his proposal to index the federal gas tax to construction costs and fuel economy standards.
What does the report card tell us that we didn't already know about the nation's infrastructure? Is ASCE being too tough? What would an "exceptional" road, runway, or levee look like? How does the United States compare with other countries on a similar grading scheme? What are the most pressing needs for the United States, and how can they be addressed?