Engineers Say Tax Increase Needed To Save Failing U.S. Infrastructure

Mar 9, 2017
Originally published on March 11, 2017 7:40 am

The nation's roads, bridges, airports, water and transit systems are in pretty bad shape, according to the civil engineers who plan and design such infrastructure.

The new report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the infrastructure of the United States a D-plus.

That nearly failing grade should boost President Trump's efforts to get a plan to invest up to $1 trillion in rebuilding everything from highways and bridges to tunnels and dams, even though the engineers' group is recommending something the president and his party are unlikely to support: a huge increase in the gasoline tax.

It's not as though many of our bridges are about to collapse or our cars likely to be swallowed up by potholes, but according to ASCE, a significant number of the critical structures and systems that we rely on to get us to and from work, that provide us with clean drinking water, and that protect us from floods are in pretty bad shape.

Take the nation's roads, for example, which Greg DiLoreto, a former president of ASCE, says get the same disappointing grade as four years ago: a D.

"More than 2 out of every 5 miles of America's urban interstates are congested, and traffic delays cost this country $160 billion in wasted fuel and time," says DiLoreto.

Because roads and highways are out of date and unable to handle today's demand, DiLoreto says, "on average, Americans waste 43 hours a year stuck in traffic. Or in other words, one in your two weeks' vacation, gone."

He says the nation's aging airports are increasingly congested, too.

"It is expected that by 2020, 24 of our 30 major airports will experience Thanksgiving Day peak traffic at least once a week," DiLoreto says.

In addition, America's water systems are leaking trillions of gallons of water, more than 2,000 dams are at high risk of failure, and there are 59,000 structurally deficient bridges around the country.

"Structurally deficient doesn't mean they are unsafe," DiLoreto says. "But it does mean they require more repair and more frequent inspections."

Mass transit earns the worst grade of all, a D-minus.

"The nation's transit systems are chronically underfunded, resulting in aging infrastructure and a $90 billion maintenance backlog," DiLoreto says.

Getting all of the nation's infrastructure into relatively good shape by the year 2025 would cost $4.59 trillion, according to the ASCE report; that's $2 trillion more than is budgeted by local, state and federal governments to address infrastructure needs.

ASCE Executive Director Tom Smith says the chronic failure to invest in infrastructure is a huge drain on the nation's economy, putting American jobs and lives at risk.

"Unfortunately, we have a tendency to wait for disasters and be reactive, and what we want to do is be proactive and not reactive," Smith says. "Because when we're reactive, it ends up costing significantly more than when we're proactive."

The engineers' group applauds President Trump for bringing needed attention to fixing the nation's crumbling infrastructure, both during his campaign and since taking office. But it also notes his call to spend up to $1 trillion on infrastructure is not enough and that his plan to leverage private investment is inadequate.

"We, the American people, will have to pay for it," says ASCE President Norma Jean Mattei. "There's no magic wand to address this crisis, no infrastructure money tree, no infrastructure private sector angel."

The ASCE is calling for a huge, 25 cents per gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax to help pay for infrastructure improvements. The group notes that the current tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn't been raised since 1993 and so hasn't kept up with inflation and growing needs.

But recent efforts to raise the gas tax even just a few cents or a nickel have been political nonstarters with Republicans in Congress. So a proposal to more than double the motor fuel tax is not likely to get off the ground.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer says President Trump is likely to stick with his original plan.

"I think we're looking at a public-private partnership as a funding mechanism," Spicer said in his briefing Thursday. "There's a lot of work being done behind the scenes and I don't want to put a timeline on that."

Despite the urgent call from the engineers, Spicer says for now, infrastructure will have to wait until after the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act and reform of the tax code.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Trump often talks about the poor condition of the nation's roads, bridges, tunnels and airports. Well, today, the nation's civil engineers joined him in telling us just how bad it is. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the infrastructure of the United States a nearly failing grade of D-plus. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's not as though many of our bridges are about to collapse or our cars will be swallowed up by potholes. But according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, a significant number of the critical structures and systems that we rely on to get us to and from work, that provide us with clean drinking water and that protect us from floods are in pretty bad shape. Take the nation's roads, for example, which the ASCE's Greg DiLoreto says get the same disappointing grade as four years ago - a D.

GREG DILORETO: More than two out of every five miles of America's urban interstates are congested. And traffic delays cost this country $160 billion in wasted fuel and time.

SCHAPER: DiLoreto says, on average, Americans waste 43 hours a year stuck in traffic, and he says our aging airports are increasingly congested, too.

DILORETO: It is expected that by 2020, 24 of our 30 major airports will experience Thanksgiving Day peak traffic at least once a week.

SCHAPER: America's water systems are leaking trillions of gallons of water. More than 2,000 dams are at high risk of failure. Fifty-nine thousand bridges around the country are structurally deficient. And DiLoreto says mass transit earns the worst grade of all - a D-minus.

DILORETO: The nation's transit systems are chronically underfunded, resulting in aging infrastructure and a $90 billion maintenance backlog.

SCHAPER: Getting all of the nation's infrastructure into relatively good shape by the year 2025 would cost more than four and a half trillion dollars, according to the engineers who design and maintain infrastructure. ASCE's executive director Tom Smith says the chronic failure to invest in infrastructure is a huge drain on the nation's economy.

TOM SMITH: Unfortunately, we have a tendency to wait for disasters and be reactive. And we want to do is be proactive and not reactive because when we're reactive, it ends up costing significantly more than when we're proactive.

SCHAPER: The engineers group applauds President Trump for his attention to fixing the nation's crumbling infrastructure. But they note his call to spend up to $1 trillion is not enough and that his plan to leverage private investment is inadequate. ASCE president Norma Jean Mattei...

NORMA JEAN MATTEI: There's no magic wand to address this crisis, no infrastructure money tree, no infrastructure private sector angel.

SCHAPER: The group is calling for a huge 25-cents-a-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax to help pay for infrastructure improvements, noting that the current tax of 18-point-four cents a gallon hasn't been raised since 1993 and hasn't kept up with inflation and with growing needs. But White House spokesman Sean Spicer says the president is sticking with his original plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN SPICER: I think we're looking at a public-private partnership as a funding mechanism. There is a lot of work being done behind the scenes, and I don't want to put a timeline on that.

SCHAPER: Despite the urgent call from engineers, Spicer says for now infrastructure will have to wait until after the repeal of replacement of Obamacare and reform of the tax code. David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN SONG, "PEOPLE EVERYWHERE - STILL ALIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.