America's infrastructure just got a C- grade — why the model is 'not sustainable'

Adriana Belmonte
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

President Joe Biden has positioned an infrastructure bill as a major priority, and it's clear why.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, which releases an infrastructure report card every four years, gave the U.S. a C-minus on Wednesday.

Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and Secretary for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) during the Clinton administration, said there are three reasons why it's crucial to fix America’s infrastructure.

“One, we build our economy,” Cisneros told Yahoo Finance. “Two, provide for public safety and health. Three, deal with the social mobility questions, the economic mobility issues of equity that we discovered during this time. There are also other pending pressing national priorities, like climate change and the urban-rural divide. So infrastructure’s not the answer to all of those things but it is part of the answer to all of them.”

LONG BEACH, CA - JANUARY 09: Former Vice President Joe Biden gives some remarks during a tour of the Gerald Desmond replacement bridge project in Long Beach on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. (Photo by Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images)
President Biden gives some remarks during a tour of the Gerald Desmond replacement bridge project in Long Beach on January 9, 2020. (Photo by Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images)

This is the first time in 20 years the U.S. has received higher than a D on the report card. Grades improved in the categories of aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports. Areas like transit stayed at a low grade, “a clear signal that our overdue bill on infrastructure is a long way from being paid off,” according to the report.

Failing to close the infrastructure investment gap, the report said, “brings serious economic consequences.” By 2039, investment in infrastructure at current rates will cost the U.S. $10 trillion in GDP, $2.4 trillion in exports over the next two decades, and more than 3 million jobs. It will also cost the average American household $3,300 a year.

The total investment gap has increased from $2.1 trillion over 10 years to nearly $2.6 trillion. In order to close the gap and restore the country’s global competitive advantage, the report found there must be an increase in investment from both the government and the private sector from 2.5% to 3.5% of GDP by 2025.

Outdated infrastructure

America’s transit received a D-minus. According to the report, there's a $176 billion backlog, which is expected to surpass $250 billion by 2029. Because of that, 19% of transit vehicles are considered to be in poor condition.

Many of America's transit vehicles are outdated. (Chart: ACSE)
Many of America's transit vehicles are outdated. (Chart: ACSE)

Road and bridge projects rely on funding from the Highway Trust Fund, but the pandemic has reduced vehicle miles traveled — which means less gas tax receipts and an estimated revenue loss of $37 billion in the past year.

If transit were improved, the report estimates that it could broaden economic activity and boost jobs. Every $1 billion invested in transportation would create roughly 49,000 jobs over a 20-year period at current wage rates, according to the report.

Roads, meanwhile, got a D. Over 40% of America’s roads are considered to be in either “poor” or “mediocre” condition. This means that motorists pay over $1,000 each year in wasted time and fuel and nearly $130 billion total in vehicle repairs and operating costs. The poor roads have contributed to accidents, fatalities, and bad traffic.

America's roads are not in great condition. (Chart: ACSE)
America's roads are not in great condition. (Chart: ACSE)

The most congested areas in the country include Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., which cost the cities a combined total of $31.3 billion.

There is also the climate change factor — pavement costs could see an additional $19 billion by 2040 due to rising temperatures.

'Not a sustainable model'

The country’s roads and highways move roughly $17 trillion (72%) of the nation’s goods each year and without proper maintenance, by 2039, a 60-minute trip could take 106 minutes. Between roads and bridges, there’s a $786 billion backlog of repair and maintenance needs.

America’s more than 617,000 bridges got a C. A whopping 42% of them are at least 50 years old while 7.5% are structurally deficient. Yet, according to the report, vehicles make 178 million trips across the bridges each day. The cost of repairs is estimated at $125 billion, which at the current rate of investment, will take until 2071 to make.

The quality of U.S. bridges has slowly declined. (Chart: ACSE)
The quality of U.S. bridges has slowly declined. (Chart: ACSE)

“The additional deterioration over the next 50 years will become overwhelming,” the report said, adding: “This is not a sustainable model.”

The nation’s rail network got a B. There's a repair backlog of $45.2 billion, and according to the report, infrastructure-related issues cause 328,000 minutes of train delays on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Ports, which are vital for trade export and generate 26% of the U.S. GDP, received a B-minus. There's a funding gap of $15.5 billion over the next decade, though there are plans to spend $163 billion between 2021 and 2025 on improvements on the nation’s more than 300 ports, which support an estimated 30.8 million jobs.

'Infrastructure is not the end'

Cisneros compared infrastructure investment to investing in a bond, in that it can offer a long-term return.

“It’s safe because the facility has to be built,” he said. “It’s going to be there for the long run and it will generate a return. So we need to create a system that models more of the capital that’s sitting on the sidelines, waiting for returns to be deployed in solving these problems.”

TOPSHOT - Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden meets workers and discusses gun rights as he tours the Fiat Chrysler plant in Detroit, Michigan on March 10, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
President Biden meets workers as he tours the Fiat Chrysler plant in Detroit, Michigan on March 10, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

President Biden has released an ambitious, $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which he vowed “will make historic investments in infrastructure and manufacturing, innovation, research and development, and clean energy.”

Though it’s not clear when his administration will push the bill through Congress, many expect that it will receive bipartisan support.

“An important point: Infrastructure is not the end,” Cisneros said. “It is the means to an end, and the end should be these bigger solutions we have to frame, like the racial equity question, like the economic stimulation the country needs, like climate change and the urban-rural divide questions. Those are the ends we’re trying to achieve. Let’s use infrastructure in thoughtful ways to get there.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.

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