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America's infrastructure isn't as shoddy as it sounds

Rick Newman

Is America falling apart?

There are certainly those who want you to believe it is. Just a few weeks after President Trump delivered his gloomy “American carnage” inauguration speech, a key update on the nation’s infrastructure says America’s physical backbone is crumbling.

The American Society of Civil Engineers is out with a new “report card” on America’s infrastructure, and its overall grade is a familiar D+. That’s the same awful grade as last time the ASCE issued an infrastructure report card, in 2013.

There might be some hope for improvement this time, since President Trump has said he wants to spend a whopping $1 trillion on new road, bridge, port and airspace projects. According to the ASCE, bringing the nation’s infrastructure up to par would require $2 trillion in new spending by 2025, on top of roughly $2.5 trillion government at all levels is likely to spend during that time. The new spending would amount to an extra $250 billion year or so, financed, perhaps, by a hike in the federal gasoline tax. For reference, the intensely controversial stimulus spending in the 2009 recovery act signed by President Obama only included about $100 billion in infrastructure spending. That helped boost the ASCE’s grade for America’s roads from a D- in 2009 to a D in 2013, which is where it still stands.

Is the state of America’s infrastructure that bad?

Civil engineers are good folks. They build useful things and help us get around. But let’s apply a bit of skepticism to this report, generally accepted as the irrefutable gospel on the state of physical America. A D+ grade in school, or anything else, is pretty much a disaster. It’s one tiny step above abject failure. Does this really reflect the reality of moving stuff around in America?

Not for me. I get to work every day through a rather effortless combination of travel by bike, rail and foot. (The ASCE doesn’t grade bicycle or pedestrian thoroughfares, but it does give the rail component a C+, the second-highest grade for any sector. Solid waste is the star of the ASCE report, with a B- grade.) I fly sometimes, and while it’s rarely fun, I usually get where I’m going within a couple hours of the target time. I drive a lot too, and while I encounter plenty of traffic, potholes and irritating tolls, I also complete the trip more or less satisfactorily. Most of the time, these aren’t D+ trips—and some of them are As. D+ connotes a transportation system so dilapidated that from time to time you’d arrive at washed-out, uncrossable bridges and simply have to turn around when whole sections of pavement were uprooted, as if by land mines.

Consistent Ds in infrastructure

The ASCE has been issuing report cards every three or four years since 1998, and you probably think things have gotten a lot worse since the peak prosperity of the late 1990s. Not so! The ASCE’s 1998 grade was a straight D, which means things are actually getting better. Go figure. In fact, every one of the ASCE’s six report card grades has been either a D or a D+. It has never granted a C or better for America’s infrastructure as a whole. Tough graders, those engineers.

The obvious question here is: What’s the baseline? D+, compared with what? To arrive at its grades, an ASCE committee evaluates data on 16 types of infrastructure from government agencies and other sources, and consults with various experts. Committee members then convert that information into letter grades. “They use their judgment based on time they’ve spent all their careers working in these various categories,” saysGreg DiLoreto, one of the committee members and a former president of the ASCE. An A, which no category has ever received, represents “exceptional and fit for the future.” A B grade, which is ASCE’s goal for US infrastructure, means “adequate for now.” A D grade means “poor, at risk.”

The engineers are undoubtedly right, in general, that it would be wise to spend more money on the kinds of infrastructure projects that improve safety, efficiency, business profitability and quality of life. No argument there. But it’s worth asking if they’re needlessly adding to the gloom about everything going wrong in America, especially now that Trump is Doomsayer-in-Chief. If you compare the United States with the rest of the world, it’s clearly not a D+. Haiti is a D+. War zones in the early stages of recovery are a D+.

As a counterbalance, here are a few things that have been going right. The on-time arrival rate for domestic flights has stabilized at around 80%—even with more people flying—and problems such as mishandled baggage and flight cancellations are at the lowest rate in decades. Plus, fatal accidents are extraordinarily rare. Does this really mesh with a D grade for aviation as a whole? If so, what’s an A? Magic flying carpets for everybody?

The ASCE gives the energy infrastructure a D+, on account of aging facilities such as distribution lines that date to the 1950s or ‘60s. Fair enough. Yet some energy experts think a transformative energy revolution is underway, as the cost of solar comes down, wind turbines spring up and private-sector investors—not do-gooder governments—start to sink money into renewables because they’ll get a handsome return.

Parks and recreation earn a C- from the ASCE, yet attendance at national parks hit a record high for the third straight year in 2016. All those visitors might be adding to the strain on parking facilities, bathrooms and hiking trails, but if parks are in such lousy shape, why do so many people keep showing up?

Just about every profession has an interest group in Washington that lobbies for more government spending that will benefit its own people. The ASCE is probably more honorable than most, and to its credit, it advocates prudent spending based on rigorous analysis rather than the gimme-gimme grab bag some groups lobby for. But the well-meaning engineers are also making a legitimate problem sound worse than it is, which is very Trumpian and therefore timely—but not a very good reflection of how real Americans get to work, go shopping or visit their relatives.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include new information on the ASCE’s methodology for this study, and to clarify the amount of new spending the ASCE is calling for. 

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Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman