"Near Failing" Is Not Acceptable

The ASCE's Report Card for America’s Infrastructure shows a shift in grade from a D to a D+. Yet, such incremental progress is not enough when it comes to maintaining vital infrastructure systems.

Although I knew my daughter had been struggling in one of her classes, I have to admit I still freaked when we received her progress report and learned she was getting a D in the class. She was able to turn it around pretty quickly, but it took some motivation to get her focused on what needed to be done.

Yet, sometimes even the most painful motivation isn’t enough. Take the results of the American Society for Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Despite high-profile bridge collapses, failures in the power grid and fatal gas line explosions throughout the past decade, the overall grade received edged up only slightly — from a D to a D+ — since the last report came out four years ago.

Of course, any improvement is better than none. According to the report, solid waste, drinking water, wastewater, roads and bridges all saw incremental improvements, and rail jumped from a C- to a C+. No categories saw a decline in grade.

That said, the grades in most areas reviewed still fell below a C, meaning they are “Poor: At Risk” of failing. And despite substantial cause for concern, from a political standpoint, there seems to be little motivation on the state or federal level to address the root cause — insufficient funding to support ongoing infrastructure maintenance and improvement.

There’s no doubt that the recession hindered support for infrastructure investment, and tight budgets and burgeoning deficits continue to be a concern in many states and certainly on the federal level. Yet, it’s shortsighted to continue to neglect vital systems that dramatically impact both quality of life and the country’s economic well being.

According to the Report Card, congestion on major urban highways costs the U.S. economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually; deficient and deteriorating transit systems cost $90 billion in 2010; and the cost of airport congestion and delays was almost $22 billion in 2012, and could reach $34 billion by 2020.

While some strides have been made in each of these areas, few improvements have been seen when it comes to our water systems and the environment. Dams, drinking water, hazardous waste cleanup, levees, solid waste, wastewater and inland waterways continue to be ranked at a D grade or lower.

The ASCE Report Card puts it quite succinctly: “Infrastructure is the foundation that connects the nation’s businesses, communities, and people, driving our economy and improving our quality of life.” Its value to us as a country cannot be overstated, yet it is so often brushed aside amidst the political “crisis of the day.” With each delay, the costs continue to escalate and the risk of catastrophic failures becomes more imminent.

As a parent, I won’t accept a D grade as “good enough” from my children; I expect more from them. As a country, we should not be willing to accept a near failing grade when it comes to the systems that keep America moving forward. We should expect, and demand, much better.