Image: Crack in bridge support
Matt Rourke  /  AP file
Aging infrastructure includes the nation's highway system, much of which was built in the 1950s. This cracked support pillar for Interstate 95 in Philadelphia, Pa., caused closures while it was fixed last March.
msnbc.com
updated 1/28/2009 7:49:36 AM ET 2009-01-28T12:49:36

Four years after their last report card on roads, water and other public works, the nation's civil engineers on Wednesday gave efforts to repair infrastructure a "D," saying that little had improved while repair costs had grown by more than $500 billion.

What has changed since 2005 is that the nation's economy has taken a nosedive, and President Barack Obama and many lawmakers want to use infrastructure projects to create jobs. It's a plan the nation's engineers could influence, and benefit from.

The House was expected to pass an $825 billion economic stimulus bill on Wednesday. Of that money, $150 billion would go to fixing infrastructure.

"Our leaders are looking for solutions to the nation's current economic crisis,"  Wayne Klotz, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said in a statement. "Not only could investment in these critical foundations have a positive impact, but if done responsibly, it would also provide tangible benefits to the American people, such as reduced traffic congestion, improved air quality, clean and abundant water supplies and protection against natural hazards."

None of the 15 infrastructure categories graded by the society got higher than a C+, and most grades were Ds. The society urged the government and the private sector to invest $2.2 trillion over five years on everything from bridges to sewage plants.

Report chairman Andrew Herrmann told the Associated Press that while the 2005 overall grade was more like a "high D" the latest grade was more like a "low D."

Herrmann, an engineer with the New York firm Hardesty & Hanover, said the society issued the report card now — a full survey won't be out until late March — "to be relevant ... investing in our infrastructure will create jobs."

Taxpayer group sees potential value
The timing of the report card, released on the same day as the House vote on Obama's stimulus package, was met with some skepticism by Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which opposes what it considers excessive government spending.

The civil engineers' group is "certainly in the position to be qualified to talk about deteriorating infrastructure — but also to benefit," he said, something policymakers need to keep in mind. But Ellis also said the engineers society could be a useful voice, since it agrees with his group on the need to fund "fix it first" projects before new construction, the focus of Obama's plan.

Ellis said taxpayers would get the most for their money if it's spent in economically depressed areas. Right now, however, the legislation is written generically so it's impossible to see where tens of billions in federal money would go.

Ellis said the legislation should be specific about what projects would be funded. The engineers' society could play a key role here by suggesting "criteria that help guide agencies" without favoring one region or project over another, he said.

Klotz, for his part, compared his members to doctors, who aren't accused of being self-serving when they offer a diagnosis. "In the same way, civil engineers — the professionals who design and build infrastructure systems — are the ones most qualified to evaluate their improvement or decline," he said.

"Most of us know from personal experience that our roads are congested and our schools are overcrowded — this report card provides a framework to understand the full scope of those problems, he said. "If we do not invest now, we will end up paying more in the long run."

Roads, aviation, transit worsen
The engineers' society said that of all infrastructure, transportation is in the worst shape, with aviation, roads and mass transit all deteriorating since 2005. Aviation and mass transit dropped from a D+ to a D; roads dropped from a D to a D-.

"A three percent annual growth is expected in air travel," the society said, "and despite recent successes — such as the opening of three new major runways — travelers continue to face increasing delays and inadequate conditions in the nation’s airports as a result of the long overdue need to modernize the outdated air traffic control system and the failure to enact a federal aviation program."

On roads, the society cited figures from the Texas Transportation Institute, which estimates that Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, costing the economy $78.2 billion, or $710 per motorist. According to the institute, 45 percent of major urban highways are congested, and current annual spending is less than half of the actual need to substantially improve conditions.

The society estimated the cost of road and bridge repairs and maintenance at $930 billion.

As for mass transit, ridership increased 25 percent from 1995 to 2005, but nearly half of American households still do not have access to bus or rail transit.

It would cost more than twice the current annual capital spending of $9.8 billion to improve mass transit to the point that it was considered in "good" condition, the society said, citing the the Federal Transit Administration.

Herrmann emphasized that the price tag of $2.2 trillion isn't as bad as it seems since $1.1 trillion of that is already being spent or planned. The biggest "gap" is an additional $548 billion in roads and bridges, the report said. Second is $189 billion for public transit.

"Do you realize we're driving on a lot of roads that were built during the Eisenhower administration," Herrmann said.

New in the report card was a category for levees. That infrastructure of 100,000 miles of barricades to hold back floodwaters got a D-.

Of the 15 categories, only one — energy infrastructure — improved, and that was just from a D to a D+.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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