Invest Now: The Call of U.S. Engineers

An Interview with Tom Smith
Old Bridge In Florida
ASCE has repeatedly raised the alarm about the poor state of infrastructure in the United States and the need for investment. Which is the state of the country’s roads, bridges and other important structures?

«ASCE  has been writing the American infrastructure Report Card since 1998 and we created a grade analyzing 16 categories of infrastructure. In the 2013 Report Card, which is the most recent year that we issued the document, we accumulated a grade point average of D+. This category describes infrastructure as poor and at risk, mostly below standard with many elements approaching the end of its service life.»

What would be the most urgent or pressing investments to be made to address this problem?

«If we look at the Report Card, the worst grades were in inland waterways and levees with a D-, But also other categories got a D, like roads, aviation and transit. The most significant gap in funding is in the area of transportation

How many capital investments are needed to bridge the gap and start a New Deal for infrastructure in the United States?

«The investment that is needed by 2020 is $3.6 trillion, and we think that there is about 2 trillion that are already in place. For this reason the gap is about $1.6 trillion.» 

On this point,  U.S. President Donald Trump announced an ambitious plan to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure. What do you think about it?

«For sure $1 trillion in 10 years is a step in the right direction and is an important investment in the country: both the candidates talked about addressing infrastructure. President Trump has talked about it increasingly, also during his inauguration speech. Obviously with this infrastructure plan the devil is in the details. But, yes, $1 trillion in 10 years is a step in the right direction.»

Brooklyn bridge, NYC
Trump’s plan will be a public-private partnership. Is this a realistic way to fund the plan?

«We believe public-private partnerships are important tools in the tool box and one of the ways to fund infrastructure. We don’t believe is going to be the only one, because we think that we need federal and local states to invest. The President talked about giving tax breaks to investors who are willing to lend money and that could spread further public-private partnerships. Moreover, we have seen some successes. For example, here in Virginia, we have very successful public-private partnerships. Ultimately, the people who use and benefit from infrastructure will need to pay for them with taxes or tools, because when you have a public-private partnership, it does need to be a return on investment, so you need to pay for that infrastructure.»

What impact would this investment have on the country, whether it be in terms of jobs or the economy?

«President Trump has talked about creating 13 million jobs over 10 years. The announcement he has done supports the idea that infrastructure is not an expense but an investment with significant returns. It saves Americans money, about $3,400 per year per family, just because of the time we spent in traffic, power outages, water leakages. Our projections are 2.5 million jobs by 2025. We think that we can have a significant increase to our GDP, that it will be 3.9% by 2025 based on the numbers that we have. Finally in our view, investing in infrastructure is critical for the global economy and for the success of America.» 

Individual states are already carrying debt. So, from where will these funds come?

«I think that the funds would arrive from the federal and local levels. One of the options is public-private partnership. In the transportation sector, we have been strong advocates of  an increase in the federal gas tax that is 18.6 cents a gallon and has not been increased since 1993. In the last four years, 19 states have increased their gas tax. Then I read an article describing how at least 21 states are considering doing it at some stage in the future. It’s one of the simplest, quickest and clearest solutions to finding additional long-term sustainable funds for transportation infrastructure.»

ASCE has also spoken of innovation. How critical is it in the pursuit of sustainable development?

«We believe innovation is absolutely critical for the solution as well as for sustainability and resilience. The infrastructure that we are going to put in place now has to have an impact for the next 50 years and beyond. Today, we have more innovation and technology than we did 100 years ago, when some of the infrastructure that we have today goes back. This new technology can give us the chance to reduce costs, but we have to invest to put them in place