U.S. Infrastructure Shows The Effects Of Neglect, Smith Says
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So there is how politicians talk about infrastructure spending, but then there are the people who actually have to build it. Tom Smith represents a lot of those people. He's the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and he is in our studios in Washington. Thanks for coming in.
TOM SMITH: Good morning. Thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: So the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D-plus rating on the last report card, which came out in 2017. That seems real bad. Why...
MARTIN: ...Did the U.S. get that grade?
SMITH: Absolutely. We, unfortunately, have neglected our infrastructure over the years, and much of our infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. And we're at a point now where we cannot kick this can further and further down the road as we've been doing for many, many years now. And we need to invest in it. And we're realizing that maintenance of infrastructure is critical. It's not just the upfront costs we have to consider. It's the lifecycle costs, and it's the maintenance for a developed country like this with an interstate system that was built under Eisenhower back in the 1950s and navigable waterways built in the early 1900s under Roosevelt. We have a lot of work to do.
MARTIN: So we just haven't been - the U.S. hasn't been building it, Congress hasn't been building that kind of maintenance into budgets.
SMITH: Correct. We have not been investing. And I think we really need a national vision for our infrastructure and investment in our infrastructure. We need to be looking towards the future, and not towards the past and relying on our parents and grandparents, the work that they've done. We have to look forward and be more sustainable, more resilient, and invest in the future.
MARTIN: Both parties kind of agree in theory that all these fixes need to get made, yet they can't seem to find the money to invest in them. Why? I mean, in your experience, from your vantage point, what are the stumbling blocks?
SMITH: Absolutely. Well, the good news is that both parties are really talking about this. We saw it in the presidential election. We're seeing it now in the meeting that's taking place today. And all the rhetoric that you're hearing is actually very, very good. The conversation has changed. People are recognizing the problem. And I think the public is recognizing the problem. And polling is showing that, that this is one of the top issues that the public would like to see Congress address in 2019.
So that's good. How do you pay for it? People who use infrastructure have to pay for infrastructure. That's us. And in some ways, this needs a...
SMITH: ....Culture change. That's us. That's all of us. We use infrastructure, and we've got to pay for it. One of the things that we talk about is transportation. That's a big part of the funding gap for infrastructure. Right now, the federal gas tax hasn't been increased since 1993. It's 18.5 cents a gallon. It was increased under Clinton. It was increased under H.W. Bush. It was increased under Reagan. But it hasn't been increased since 1993, and we're trying to pay for current infrastructure with those dollars.
And in the meantime, we've got more fuel-efficient cars. So these dollars are not going as far. So short-term solution, increase the gas tax on the transportation side. I think it eventually will move to sort of vehicle-miles-traveled, as we're piloting programs to look at that in other states right now.
MARTIN: I imagine you still also, though, need to see a heavy investment by the federal government itself?
SMITH: Absolutely. We'd like to - it needs - it requires an investment in leadership by the federal government, and also investment then by state and local government and the private sector. Those are all the tools in the toolbox that all need to be utilized to solve this problem. But it starts with leadership from the federal government.
MARTIN: You talk about how there is now a public acknowledgement that the infrastructure needs a big boost. It's probably already pretty dire when that happens. That means the public is noticing. That means that things are breaking, literally, beneath their feet. Can you just quickly tick off what are the worst examples?
SMITH: Absolutely. Right now in the water sector, we have 240,000 waterline breaks a year. So every couple of three minutes, we're seeing a waterline break. Sometimes that permeates down into...
MARTIN: Every 23 seconds?
SMITH: ...Other networks. Every two to three minutes, we're seeing the waterline break. So we saw that with the Orange Line being delayed last week here in the Metro system. We saw that several years ago that shut down a number of lines of the Metro system here in Washington, D.C.
Transportation. People are sitting in traffic 42 hours average, per year. That's a vacation period. Now, one of the things we're also finding is, when we did a study, $3,400 is what an American family pays right now because of our failure to invest in infrastructure. That's the hidden tax we pay today because of inefficiencies in the system. Sitting in congestion, added cost. We can invest now and save those dollars.
MARTIN: And the meeting will take place today. Maybe it's a starting point. Tom Smith, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Thank you for your time. We appreciate it.
SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.