Grading America’s Infrastructure. (It’s Not Good.)

1942 photograph of carpenter at work on Douglas Dam, Tennessee (TVA). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has just released its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, an accounting done every four years since 1988. The ASCE grades the nation’s built environment and social services: Public parks, drinking water, bridges, schools, toxic waste disposal, and more—16 categories in all. The results are sobering: The U.S. grades out at a dismal D+.

The near-disaster at California’s Oroville Dam this winter was a dramatic reminder of the costs of crumbling infrastructure. Nor should we forget the everyday failures, such as the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water.

Damage to the Oroville Dam. Copyright © 2017 ABC Inc., KABC-TV Los Angeles. All Rights Reserved.

The ASCE Report Card’s website provides a wealth of information. You can chart America’s crumbling landscape through infographics and maps by state and type of infrastructure, plus a live feed of Congresspeople tweeting about the report. There is also a section with proposed solutions and ways to become involved. (Over at his New Deal of the Day blog, Brent McKee highlights some of the shortcomings of these proposals, while also suggesting the role that New Deal-inspired programs might play in improving American infrastructure.)

But the backlog of maintenance, repair, and replacement is daunting: some $4.7 trillion, according to the engineers. Compared to the needs, President Trump’s promise to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure falls pitifully short. Worse, he is not talking about public investment, but, as Marketplace points out, private construction that will have to be repaid through user fees. Nor does Trump’s vision account for such important innovations as green building technologies and new materials.

What is crystal clear is that America needs a new New Deal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and public services. A program of national reconstruction must, as the report notes, speak to the times, “improving the ‘triple bottom line’ with clear economic, social, and environmental benefits.’” It is doubtful, though, that the current leadership in Washington is capable of launching such an effort, leaving the future economic, social, and environmental well-being of the country in serious doubt.

Brent McKee, Richard A Walker, and Gray Brechin contributed to this post.

Gabriel Milner is Project Manager for The Living New Deal. He is a trained cultural historian who teaches courses in U.S. History at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

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