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Nation & World

An Overview Of America's C- Infrastructure Report Card

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

This week, President Biden and a bipartisan group of senators announced they had reached a deal on a plan to invest $1.2 trillion to update the nation's infrastructure. The deal focuses on the more traditional aspects of infrastructure that Democrats and Republicans can agree on, things like roads and bridges, rail links and expanding broadband internet access. So what are the nation's most urgent needs in these areas? Greg DiLoreto is here to help us answer that. He is chair emeritus of the American Society of Civil Engineers Committee on America's Infrastructure. That group recently issued a report card that gave America's infrastructure a C-minus grade. Greg DiLoreto, thanks so much for being here today.

GREG DILORETO: Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: So a C-minus, that's not what I would aim for, but it's also not a failing grade. How concerning is that grade when we are talking about the nation's infrastructure?

DILORETO: Well, it's certainly a concern. A C grade means we have infrastructure that's at risk. It's mediocre in its condition. And our great of a C-minus covers 17 different categories of infrastructure on a familiar report card format like you would have gotten at school, although I hope yours is better than this. But that C-minus and those 17 grades is just that average of those grades to come up with the C-minus. Now, the good news is, for the first time - we've been doing this report card since 1998, every four years - and this is the first time the overall grade has gotten out of the Ds, which it was - just terrible. So the good news is, overall in our nation, we've gotten a little bit out of the Ds at a C-minus.

The bad news is that of those 17 categories, 11 of them still have grades in the Ds. And these are the kind of things you think about when you think about infrastructure, such as roads, which got a D. And stormwater got a D. And transit - our worst grade - was a D-minus. And so that part's troubling in the sense. But we can see we are making a little bit of progress. Where we've made investments in infrastructure, we've seen the grade increase. And it's not about increasing the grade, of course, it's about providing for our quality of life and our economic prosperity.

MCCAMMON: That's interesting because, you know, during the Trump administration, it was the constant joke that it was always infrastructure week but never infrastructure weak. And so I'm actually kind of surprised to hear that we've made improvements as a nation in the last few years. Has that investment been at the federal level or are we looking more at state and local investment?

DILORETO: That's an excellent question, because that has been at the state and local level. Most of our infrastructure in the - in this country is owned by our local governments or the private sector, not necessarily the federal level. But the federal level has been a partner over many years, until recently, in infrastructure, because there's so much infrastructure we do that connects our nation together. And we want to make sure that wherever we are in this country, we can enjoy that same consistency in our infrastructure, particularly when we think about things like drinking water, you know, and wastewater and our interstate highway system. But in the last many years now, the federal government has, you know, they've made investments. We're not saying they're they're silent on it. But they haven't really made the kind of investments needed at their level to bring their part of that grade up.

MCCAMMON: So you mentioned things like transit, roads, the obvious things we think of. What are the most urgent priorities?

DILORETO: A couple of things to think about it in this is that our infrastructure is connected. So while we do have a grade of D in roads, for example, and we have a grade in our ports, for example, I think it's a B-minus, the fact is, if we don't continue to maintain all of this infrastructure at some level, it breaks down because it's connected. So another example is wastewater treatment plants are some of the largest users of electricity in any area. And yet, if all we did was concentrate and made wastewater treatment plants went from a D-plus to a B and ignored our energy, which is at a C-minus, we wouldn't solve the problem. So the fact is we need to work on all of them. And secondly, most of these infrastructures have dedicated funding source. So you can't spend your wastewater money, for example, in public parks, which also got a grade of D-plus.

MCCAMMON: So granting that it's all important, there is only so much money for any given year to invest in these kinds of things. I mean, how confident are you that this deal between the White House and this bipartisan group of senators is going to make some serious headway?

DILORETO: Well, the fact is we didn't get to this C-minus overnight and we're not going to correct it overnight. We don't even have the capacity, you know, employee wise to be able to do the designs, to build the projects, to get it all done immediately. It takes time. And certainly that's what's being proposed in the White House's plan. It's over several years, and that's what we need to see happen. What's so encouraging this time that we've never seen before is we have a plan that actually includes funding for all 17 of our categories. And we've never seen that before. You know, we've seen some bills that deal with roads, and we've seen bills that deal with water, and we've seen bills that deal with wastewater. But we've actually gotten a comprehensive plan that's being worked out by our elected officials to try to put together something that will allow us to make some headway as a nation on this problem.

And I can tell you that if we don't make headway, this has some serious economic consequences for our country. For example, if we don't start making headway by 2039, we could see a loss in $10 trillion in our gross domestic product. That's more than twice what Germany's is now. We could see a loss of $2.4 trillion in exports over 20 years. But here's a number that all Americans can relate to, that between now and 2039, on average, we're losing $3,300 per year in disposable income because of poorly functioning infrastructure. You know, that's money you could be spending to go out to dinner, save up for your kids to go to college, go on a trip, do something other than that. So you're losing that money - it's $9 a day - when you could be investing about $5 a day to make it better.

MCCAMMON: I wonder going forward how much environmental factors will play into all of this - sea level rise, for instance, there's a lot of talk about that following the terrible building collapse in Florida. And we want to stress that we don't know exactly what caused that collapse, but it does call attention to that kind of concern. Is the changing environment a factor that has to be considered when we talk about upgrading infrastructure nationally?

DILORETO: Absolutely. If you look at the three recommendations that ASCE has proposed in terms of trying to get the grade up, one of those, the third recommendation - and these aren't in order of importance - but the third one is resilience, that we have to utilize new approaches, new materials. We have to consider climate change as we're designing and building these infrastructure facilities. If - just a simple example of stormwater. We're using much different models today to take into account the different climate than we did 30, 40 years ago to design these facilities. And we need to do that if they're going to withstand the kinds of things that are happening right now and in the future.

MCCAMMON: And finally, as the debate inevitably continues in Congress and elsewhere about how exactly to invest in our infrastructure, why should Americans care about all this?

DILORETO: There is probably nothing that touches us more than our infrastructure, whether it's the drinking water we take out of the tap, whether it's when you flush the toilet and it goes away and it's safely and environmentally treated, whether it's how you get to work every day, whether that's by transit, whether you're stuck in traffic in your car on a congested road, even down to the schools that you send your children to, all of those play intimately into your life every single day, and they have an economic impact on it. And the better that infrastructure functions, the better your quality of life is.

And so there can be nothing greater that affects you so personally than this infrastructure, every single one of us. And in addition, many of us were all affected in terms of our jobs, many of us directly, you know, who actually work at it, but on the same token, if you own a business, if you work in a business, it relies upon that infrastructure for the success of your business. And I can recall a couple of years ago, when I went out to dinner and the water pipe broke in front of the restaurant I was in, and they closed the restaurant down. The workers didn't get paid. The business didn't make any money. And I was - I didn't get to have a nice dinner out. It just affects you so personally every day of your life.

MCCAMMON: That's Greg DiLoreto, chair emeritus of the American Society of Civil Engineers Committee on America's Infrastructure. Mr. Greg DiLoreto, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DILORETO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.