Understanding infrastructure: The cost of repairing our roads, bridges and dams

Water rushes down the Oroville dam spillway in Northern California. Photo courtesy California Department of Water Resources
Water rushes down the Oroville dam spillway in Northern California. Photo courtesy California Department of Water Resources

Infrastructure looked like it might be a big priority under President Donald Trump.

A signature promise of his 2016 campaign was to spend $550 billion over 10 years — double what was proposed by his opponent, Hillary Clinton — to upgrade the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, airports and railways. 

Some 3.3 million jobs would be created along the way.

Arguably, there was a need for such an investment. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure a grade of D+ for 2017, in the most recent of the infrastructure report cards it does every four years.

In 2018, there was some movement, as Trump proposed to inject $200 billion in hard federal dollars in infrastructure. But even that more modest proposal did not gain traction.

All of which led us to rate Trump’s $550 billion pledge as Stalled on our Trump-O-Meter, which tracks Trump’s campaign promises. 

Yet, until it blew up in May 2019, there was a tentative agreement between Trump and Democratic leaders for a $2 trillion infrastructure plan. And in November, 2020 Democratic front-runner Joe Biden proposed spending nearly triple what Trump did — $1.3 trillion over 10 years.

But leaving aside proposals made during campaigns, just how much money would it take to fix our infrastructure in three key areas — roads, bridges and dams?

The American Society of Civil Engineers report card says $588 billion is needed for roads, bridges and dams. Experts told us it could be more.

Tackling deferred maintenance should be the top priority in all three areas, Richard Geddes, professor and founding director of the Cornell University Program in Infrastructure Policy, told us. 

"That is, when each type of facility is designed and constructed, there is a set schedule to keep each dam, road or bridge in a state of good repair," he said.

"The problem is that, when budgets become tight, infrastructure maintenance becomes one of the easier things to defer until next year, and then the year after, and so on. Sadly, if scheduled maintenance is deferred for too long, then major repairs are required. Those major repairs end up being much more costly than the regular maintenance would have been.

It is the same as getting regular oil changes for a car engine, he said. "If those changes do not occur, then the entire engine must be replaced, which is much more costly."

Roads

American Society of Civil Engineers report card grade: D.

One out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition, and "our roads have a significant and increasing backlog of rehabilitation needs," according to the report card, which pegs the cost of clearing the backlog at $420 billion.

But that could be regarded as high, according to Geddes. He said he respects the American Society of Civil Engineers, but that its cost estimates "do not appear to be based on a careful benefit/cost analysis."

A November 2019 report by the Federal Highway Administration says doing all highway work deemed as cost beneficial would cost nearly $136 billion per year.

Bridges

American Society of Civil Engineers report card grade: C+.

Here’s the condition of the 616,096 bridges in the 50 states, Guam and Puerto Rico bridges, according to the latest annual tallies, as of Dec. 31, 2018, from the Federal Highway Administration:

283,316: Good (46%)

285,676: Fair (46.4%)

47,054: Poor (7.6%)

Fixing the backlog of bridge problems would cost $123 billion, according to the report card. 

But the American Road & Transportation Builders Association goes higher, saying it would cost $171 billion to make fixes to 235,000 bridges that need some kind of repair.

"Bridges have been prioritized for increased funding and that funding has reduced the number of structurally deficient bridges and bridges past their design life," said Kevin Heaslip, a Virginia Tech professor of civil and environmental engineering focusing on transportation infrastructure, told PolitiFact he thinks the minimum is $607 billion.

At the current rate of repair, it would take 80 years to fix all the nearly 1,100 miles worth of bridges rated as poor, according to an April 2019 American Road & Transportation Builders Association report based on the federal data.

Dams

American Society of Civil Engineers report card grade: D

The cost would be $45 billion "to repair aging, yet critical, high-hazard potential dams," according to the report card.

Meanwhile, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials puts forth two figures: $70 billion to fix the dams in need of rehabilitation — or $24 billion just to fix the "most critical" ones. 

"Public safety is the driver for investment" for both bridges and the 90,580 dams across the country, Heaslip said. "Bridges and dam failures place people and, in the case of dams, property at significant risk."