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America's Roads and Bridges Aren't as Terrible as You Think

When was the last time you fell through a bridge? Or got stranded on a washed-out road? Or drank toxic tap water?

These types of things do happen from time to time, generating occasional headlines and must-watch YouTube videos. But infrastructure meltdowns are unusual and most of us get around without too much trouble. In fact, of all the pressing problems Americans say they face, wrecked roads and crumbling bridges don't even make the list.

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So it's curious that the engineers who build those roads and bridges rate America's infrastructure as far worse than most of the public would if you asked them. In its latest report on the state of the nation's infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States the shocking grade of D+. If there's any good news, it's that the latest grade improves on the D handed out the last time ASCE published such findings, in 2009.

We've gotten so used to the narrative of America as a has-been nation that we tend to readily accept all evidence of decline. But if America has a critical infrastructure problem, business leaders aren't aware of it. In its latest global competitiveness index, the World Economic Forum ranked the United States 14th out of 144 nations for the quality of its infrastructure. The top 10 were dominated by small places such as Singapore and Hong Kong, along with European nations with proficient rail systems and strong labor unions able to lobby effectively for construction projects. The United States, by contrast, is a huge landmass with inherent infrastructure challenges. So 14th is a pretty good showing.

Yet many news outlets duly reported the ASCE grade as if broken-down America is a fact beyond dispute. This woe-is-America storyline matters for a couple of reasons. First, the ASCE's grade is regarded as authoritative. It's routinely cited by politicians to lobby for more infrastructure spending, or to prove that America is going down the tubes under the current leadership (which, naturally, ought to be replaced). Second, it contributes to a declinist mentality which itself may be one of America's biggest problems.

In real life, things often work better than the ASCE grade suggests. Take aviation, one of 16 categories ASCE analyzes, which earned a D in the latest report. The reason: Delays caused by congestion supposedly cost the economy $22 billion in 2012, with government projections claiming they'll cost $34 billion by 2020 and $63 billion by 2040.

Yet in some ways, the aviation system is more efficient than ever. In 2012, nearly 84 percent of airline flights arrived on time, the highest percentage in the 17 years the government has been tracking such data. The rate of mishandled baggage hit an all-time low. Airfares, meanwhile, were 15 percent lower than they were in 1995, accounting for inflation. And aviation safety consistently improves, with airplane crashes now extremely rare.

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The ASCE also graded the drinking-water system a D, because "much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life." Yet the ASCE acknowledges that "the quality of drinking water in the United States remains universally high" and "outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are rare." Still, a D.

Bridges: C+, because 11 percent are rated as structurally deficient.

Roads: D, because 42 percent of major urban highways are congested (even though traffic fatality rates are the lowest since at least 1949).

And so on.

In the ASCE's methodology, an A grade would indicate that infrastructure is in excellent condition and "fit for the future." But ASCE has never issued an A grade. For the 15 years the ASCE has been publishing its reports, it has always graded U.S. infrastructure in the D range, which means the system is below standards, with much of it approaching the end of its useful life.

Importantly, D does not mean that public safety is at risk, which is the impression you might get if you heard about structurally deficient bridges and didn't scour the ASCE's methodology (which can be found online at http://bit.ly/14qag8U).

Many economists and policymakers agree that more infrastructure spending would be a sound investment, because it usually pays for itself and then some through higher productivity, less waste and increased business. "We're one of the most advanced countries in the world and we're ignoring our infrastructure," says Andrew Herrmann, a past president of the ASCE. "We've got to start replacing these things."

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He points out that there are more brownouts, water main breaks and other real impacts from decaying infrastructure these days. Yet he also acknowledges that the United States may be a bit better off than recurring Ds suggest. "We're not really comparing ourselves to the world," he says. "We're just comparing it to where we think America should be."

The ASCE wants government at all levels to spend $157 billion more per year to repair and maintain all those systems. It's unlikely to happen: That would be nearly twice the $85 billion in federal spending cuts that just went into effect under the sequester. Other measures could help with little cost, such as staggering business hours where possible to cut down on rush hour congestion.

Still, America has become a just-in-time nation that musters the political will to do what's necessary right before disaster strikes (and occasionally, shortly after). That means infrastructure will get fixed when there's no other choice. Until then, it's probably safe to drive, fly and drink from the faucet, no matter what you hear on the news.

Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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