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Bad roads, bridges could pare $4T from GDP in a decade

America is falling apart. And the repair bill is getting bigger.

That's the conclusion of the latest "report card" on American roads, bridges, airports, power grid and other critical infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Over the next decade, it would cost more than $3.3 trillion to keep up with repairs and replacements, but based on current funding levels, the nation will come up more than $1.4 trillion short, the group says. When projected to 2040, the shortfall is expected to top $5 trillion, unless new funds are allocated.

Without that investment, the group said in its report this week, Americans can look forward to more highway traffic jams, airport bottlenecks and potential power outages. The deterioration of U.S. ports, roads, trains, water and electric facilities will also take an economic toll, the engineers said, cutting payroll growth by some 2.5 million jobs and some $4 trillion of gross domestic product in lost sales and higher costs.

"America is currently spending more failing to act on its infrastructure gap than it would to close it," said Greg DiLoreto, the society's past president and chairman of the Committee for America's Infrastructure.

The funding gap hasn't escaped the attention of the three remaining presidential candidates. In a rare example of consensus, both Republican Donald Trump and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders agree that the U.S. needs to make a substantial investment in rebuilding.

Sanders has proposed spending $1 trillion to create more than 13 million new jobs to rebuild highways, airports and other public infrastructure, noting that these "are jobs that cannot be shipped offshore or outsourced overseas."

Clinton wants to commit $275 billion in public funds over five years, including $25 billion for a national infrastructure bank to generate another $225 billion in direct loans, loan guarantees and other forms of credit.

And while Trump has not proposed a specific funding level, he says he's in favor of major public investment in infrastructure repair and expansion.

"We're spending billions of dollars protecting countries that should be paying us to do the job yet we can't build roads in our own cities, he wrote in "Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again." "If we do what we have to do correctly, we can create the biggest economic boom in this country since the New Deal when our vast infrastructure was first put into place. It's a no-brainer."


Crumbling infrastructure "has a cascading impact on our nation's economy, impacting business productivity, gross domestic product, employment, personal income, and international competitiveness," said the engineering society's report, an update to a previous report released three years ago.

Since its last report in 2013, some areas have shown improvement, helped by recent federal, state and local investments.

The federal government undertook a surge of spending to help pull the economy out of the Great Recession with an $800 billion stimulus package of "shovel-ready" projects that had been deferred for lack of funding. But the pace of investment slowed sharply after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 expired two years later.

Investment in American roadways then stalled badly after Congress failed multiple attempts to extend long-term funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which teetered on the brink of insolvency for two years. Despite rising costs of maintenance and construction, Congress hasn't raised the gasoline tax used to replenish the fund for more than two decades.

Late last year, with the highway fund running on fumes, Congress came up with a one-time, $70 billion cash infusion for road repairs with a series of accounting gimmicks, including shifting funds from the Federal Reserve, but failed to create a sustainable source of long-term funding. The Congressional Budget Office recently projected that the money will run out in six years, and the fund faces a shortfall of some $100 billion by 2026.

Some states, meanwhile have stepped up to fill in the funding gaps — and the epidemic of potholes on state highways.

Last year, eight states — Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Washington — passed legislation to increase gas taxes, according to the National Conference of State legislatures and two more states — Kentucky and North Carolina — moved to limit declines in gas taxes from lower pump prices. Several other states are considering boosting gasoline taxes.

Aside from heading off the economic impact of crumbling infrastructure, public investment in new roads and other public projects has helped support creation of relatively good-paying jobs, according to an analysis by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

More than 14 million Americans — about 1 in 10 workers — build, operate or maintain the roads, bridges, airports, railways and other infrastructure, the 2014 study found. The workforce spans 95 occupations and 42 industries. Those workers are paid better than average, according to the Brookings report.

Workers in lower-paid infrastructure occupations earn 30 percent more than in other sectors. And although some 12 percent hold a bachelor's degree or higher, workers generally need less education to qualify for these jobs, according to the report.

Even without new spending, the sector will continue to create a large pool of relatively high-wage jobs. That's because America's infrastructure is also maintained and operated by an aging workforce that will need to be replaced, said researcher Joseph Kane, who co-authored the Brookings report.