© 2021 WYPR
Header Background.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Decline Of Infrastructure Across The U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you want to assign a letter grade to how bad it is, the American Society of Civil Engineers put out a report card giving American infrastructure a C minus. President Biden's American Jobs Plan puts roughly $2 trillion to fixing those problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Desperately needed upgrades to unclog traffic, keep people safe and connect our cities, towns and tribes across the country.

SHAPIRO: Maria Lehman is here to tell us about how much this package might do to meet the country's needs. She is one of the civil engineers responsible for putting together the infrastructure report card.

And it is good to have you here.

MARIA LEHMAN: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So when you look at what the country needs right now and what the Biden plan offers, how do they compare?

LEHMAN: I think it is absolutely a good start. Obviously, this is the beginning of a conversation with Congress, and so it'll be interesting to see how things shake out. I think we have some concerns because if you think that - it's about federal, state and local spending, and so we need to make sure everybody's working together. The gaps that we - through our Failure To Act Reports that we did as a runup to the report card, which is just a little bit under $2.6 trillion, it's a bigger number than actually has been proposed by the Biden plan.

SHAPIRO: And in your judgment, what are the most pressing needs? Like, what do we have to fix now or it will break?

LEHMAN: I think surface transportation has roads that need to be reconstructed and bridges that need to be, you know, rebuilt. I think if you're looking at water and wastewater, there's extreme conditions there, and they're graded poorly because of it. As far as electricity is concerned, we saw what happened with the distribution system in Texas because that was a function of how the plants operated. But if you look at distribution, for example, if we're shutting down coal-fired power plants in West Virginia and we're going to replace that with wind power in Texas and Oklahoma, if we don't upgrade transmission lines, we're going to need really big extension cords.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned bridges, and presidents have been talking about this for so long. In 2011, when I covered the White House, I went with President Obama to the Brent Spence Bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio, where he gave a speech about infrastructure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: And it's in such poor condition that it's been labeled functionally obsolete. Think about that. Functionally obsolete - that doesn't sound good, does it?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No.

SHAPIRO: That was a decade ago. And so if this stuff was functionally obsolete then, how would you describe it now?

LEHMAN: Well, I think there's - 42% of all the bridges in the U.S., which is about 617,000 bridges, are at least 50 years old. And about 8% of them are considered structurally deficient, which means they're in poor condition. The thing that's more alarming to us is for the first time, the number of bridges in fair condition is bigger than the number of bridges in good condition. So those two lines have crossed, which means we have to up the ante on investment on our bridges.

SHAPIRO: In practical terms, what does all of this deterioration mean for Americans?

LEHMAN: Well, in practical terms - in an independent study that we had done, an academic study - it means the average household spends an additional $3,300 a year because they're caught in traffic, because they hit a pothole and they have to do repair work on their car, the cost of goods and services because it costs more for those who are transporting the goods and services, for the generator you're running when you're expecting to have your electricity on. So all those costs rolled up, we're already paying a hidden tax of $3,300 a household. Wouldn't it be better to invest that in a new infrastructure that's going to take us into the next 50 years?

SHAPIRO: Maria Lehman is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Thank you for talking with us today.

LEHMAN: Oh, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.