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Civil Engineers Give U.S. Infrastructure A Near Failing Grade


As Washington debates if and how to pay for repairs to America's aging infrastructure, a group of civil engineers has put out a report card on the nation's roads, bridges, tunnels, dams and airports. And it's not so good. They give an almost failing grade of D-plus. NPR's David Schaper joins us now from our studios in Chicago.

Hi, David.


MARTIN: D-plus, I mean, not a D - at least it's a D-plus, we should say, not just a D. But how did we get to a D-plus?

SCHAPER: Well, the American Society of Civil Engineers puts out this report card every four years. And here's how they break it down. Highways get a D. They're overcrowded, frequently in poor condition and becoming more dangerous. Bad roads cause more wear and tear on our vehicles. These aging roads are full of more cars than they were designed to handle. And that creates more congestion.

So on average, engineers say Americans are wasting 43 hours a year sitting in traffic. That's a full workweek, or to put in a more discouraging way, a full week of vacation.

MARTIN: Yeah, I feel that (laughter).

SCHAPER: Yeah. Drinking water systems aren't so good either. They're getting a D. We waste more than 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water each year through leaking pipes and water main breaks and that sort of thing. Dams are getting a D as well. The near-failure of the Oroville Dam last month in California has drawn some attention to this problem. But the average age of the country's 90,000 dams is 56 years old. And engineers say there are more than 2,000 dams that are deficient and in danger of failing.

MARTIN: OK. That's a happy conversation. Let's continue on our journey of America's crumbling infrastructure. Airports, right? I imagine...


MARTIN: ...You're going to tell me those are bad too.

SCHAPER: Airports are getting a D. We're going to have, like, Thanksgiving-like congestion at least once a week now instead of just once a year. Conditions of our school buildings are graded a D-plus. And worst of all are our country's aging mass transit systems. That gets a D-minus. Anyone who rides the Washington Metro or the L here in Chicago or San Francisco's BART trains, they can tell you that - that there's slow zones and that sort of thing.


SCHAPER: The one bright spot of sorts is our bridges. They earn a C-plus. But 4 in 10 highway bridges are at least 50 years old. And nearly 60,000 bridges nationwide still are rated as structurally deficient. Greg DiLoreto chairs the civil engineers' committee on infrastructure and says these poor and, in some cases, worsening conditions cost us a lot of money.

GREG DILORETO: Each American family is already losing $3,400 in disposable income each year, more than $9 dollars a day, due to poor infrastructure. We're paying it on car repairs, wasted time and gas and an increased cost of goods.

SCHAPER: This report suggests it would cost nearly $4.6 trillion to rebuild the nation's infrastructure and get it into a state of good repair by the year 2025. That's almost double what we've already got budgeted.

MARTIN: All right. So real quick, how do the engineers suggest the country pay for all this?

SCHAPER: Well, the group says, first and foremost, Congress needs to fix the highway trust fund, which is funded by the gasoline tax. It doesn't generate nearly enough revenue, so they're calling for a big increase, 25 cents a gallon, more than double the current 18.4 cents a gallon. It was last raised in 1993. The problem is that that has really no chance of getting through a Republican Congress.

MARTIN: NPR's David Schaper reporting from Chicago - hey, David, thanks so much.

SCHAPER: Thanks for having me, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.