What would mother say?

ASCE’s final Failure to Act Report paints a bleak picture of United States public infrastructure

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I remember back when I was in second grade watching my mother get out of the car in our driveway on returning home from a teacher conference where she received my first-quarter report card. The look on her face told me: Uh-oh. Mom wasn’t happy with what she saw. And that meant trouble for me.

But how do we as a nation respond to the Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, released by the American Society of Civil Engineers? With a yawn, apparently – even though the grades are horrible.

The ASCE’s 2013 Report Card – the fifth and last in a series – will be released on March 19. As a prelude, the ASCE on Jan. 15 released a report, Failure to Act: The Impact of Current Infrastructure Investment on America’s Economic Future, which addresses the comprehensive effects on under-investing in our water, wastewater, highway, electricity and other critical infrastructure.

The message to elected officials, policymakers, businesses and the general public: “Unless the U.S. invests an additional $157 billion per year in infrastructure – drinking water and wastewater, electricity, airports, seaports, waterways and surface transportation – between now and 2020, the nation will lose $3.1 trillion in gross national product (GNP), $1.1 trillion in trade, a $3,100 per year drop in personal disposable income, $2.4 trillion in lost consumer spending, and a little over 3.1 million jobs.”

Now, some might charge that these persistently negative ASCE reports are self-serving, because of course investment in infrastructure means civil engineers get more work and make more money. But I, for one, don’t buy that rather cynical viewpoint. Deteriorating infrastructure has been a persistent and well publicized problem for years.

It is persistent in part because there exist a certain number of public leaders who keep insisting that government spending is inherently bad and that taxes can never be raised by any amount for any reason – and because a large slice of the public has come to accept that as dogma. So now, in a time when the economy is still struggling, household incomes are under pressure, and unemployment remains high, the ASCE is trying to make infrastructure an economic issue, hoping to strike people close to home, to make infrastructure something more than an abstraction.

I wonder what my mother would have said if I had continued to get report cards like that one from first quarter, grade 2. I guess I don’t even like to think about it. So where is the equivalent of a mother’s anger when our water and sewer pipes and roads and bridges repeatedly get D and D-minus grades for their condition? Isn’t it time we paid attention?

Gregory E. DiLoreto, P.E., ASCE president, observes, “From transporting goods, powering factories, to heating and cooling office buildings, lighting theatres, to enjoying a glass of clean water, we depend on infrastructure as the physical framework for our economy and our quality of life. Our new report ... presents an overall picture of the economic opportunities associated with infrastructure investment and the cost of failing to fill the investment gap. This report answers the question: How does U.S. infrastructure affect the nation’s economic performance?”

The Boston-based Economic Development Research Group, which prepared the report, sees an investment gap from now to 2020 of:

  • $84 billion in drinking water and wastewater
  • $846 billion in surface transportation
  • $39 billion in airports
  • $16 billion in seaports and waterways
  • $107 billion in electricity

The report asserts that the deterioration of infrastructure undermines the economy, jeopardizes public safety, threatens the quality of life, and harms the U.S. economy.

DiLoreto states, “Each preceding Failure to Act report on various infrastructure sectors demonstrated a common theme: Deteriorating infrastructure has a cascading impact on the nation’s economy, negatively affecting business productivity, gross domestic product, employment, personal income, and international competitiveness. The message is clear: If we do not invest now, all Americans end up paying more in the long run.”

Janet F. Kavinoky, executive director of transportation and infrastructure and the vice president of Americans for Transportation Mobility for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, adds, “Now is the time to bridge the gap between recognizing needs and willingness to act. The ASCE report cites large needs, and the numbers can seem daunting, but they can be met if our elected and appointed officials are willing to show leadership and address revenue needs as soon as possible instead of waiting for the next infrastructure crisis.”

What will it take to ensure that such statements end up being more than just so many words? I wish someone could put the fear of heaven into our country, the way my mom did for me. I am better for it and so would be our country.


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