U.S. Infrastructure Barely Ranks

West Lebanon — The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded the nation a better grade yesterday for improving its infrastructure over the past four years, though the country, like underachieving but bright students everywhere, still isn’t working up to its potential.

In 2009, America scored a D on ASCE’s infrastructure report card, which grades subjects including bridges, solid waste and mass transit. This year, the country managed a D-plus.

“I would say it’s progress,” said Jason Booth, a past president of the Vermont chapter of the ASCE. “I think that there’s a lot of work left to do, and I think there’s a lot of hurdles to get over, but I definitely think it’s progress.”

The report card doesn’t take into account individual state grades, which are released by the state chapters of ASCE on different time schedules. The most recent report cards for Vermont and New Hampshire were issued in 2011.

However, the Twin States’ grades slightly eclipse those of the nation, with Vermont scoring a C-minus and New Hampshire receiving a C. But according to current Vermont section president Jessica Louisos, the data for the most recent Green Mountain State report card came before Tropical Storm Irene hit the region.

When the next state report comes out, grades on infrastructure such as bridges could fare better than the C-minus they received in 2011, Louisos said, because of subsequent rebuilding. Booth noted that a new Vermont report card would likely be released in conjunction with Irene’s second anniversary in August.

The slight improvement — and the slick website used to trumpet the information — reflects the country’s keener interest in its infrastructure problems, according to Andrew Samwick, a Dartmouth economics professor and former chief economist on the staff of the White House Council on Economic Advisers.

“Compared to, say, where we were four, five years ago, the discussion of rebuilding infrastructure is closer to the front burner,” he said. “Maybe you can smell what’s cooking on it, even if you couldn’t quite touch it.”

The cost of the country’s needed infrastructure improvements stand at $3.6 trillion, the ASCE estimates, but declining federal appropriations will create a total funding gap of about $1.6 trillion, or about $200 billion per year.

“While the modest progress is encouraging, it is clear that we have a significant backlog of overdue maintenance across our infrastructure systems, a pressing need for modernization, and an immense opportunity to create reliable, long-term funding sources to avoid wiping out our recent gains,” ASCE stated in the report card’s summary.

Nationally, the lowest grade was a D-minus, for inland waterways and levees. The best grade was a B-minus, for solid waste.

Despite those near flunk-out grades, there are nonetheless some who argue that, with the right help, there are ways the U.S. can turn its infrastructure performance around.

“I think it’s possible,” Booth said. “I really do think it’s possible. I think that there are a lot of opportunities for creativity in how that funding gap is closed.”

He mentioned public-private partnerships, which “can reduce that funding gap tremendously,” though they would likely be more effective in areas more metropolitan than the Upper Valley.

Samwick said the still-dire report card tallies could have been better if high unemployment over the past few years was used as a catalyst, and those out-of-work were given jobs repairing infrastructure.

“There is a better time than the present,” Samwick said, “but it was five years ago.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.