Even though his health-care website is still in need of dire repair, President Obama was in the port of New Orleans earlier this month talking about repairing a much bigger problem: the nation's aging highways, bridges and ports. Saying that 1 in 9 bridges are structurally deficient and more than 40 percent of major highways are congested, Obama repeated his call for major infrastructure investment, but it's unclear how or if that will happen.
Announced during his State of the Union speech in February, Obama's Fix-It-First program calls for $40 billion in spending on a backlog of urgent repairs and upgrades. That would follow $31 billion that went into infrastructure as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But those sums are dwarfed by the $3.6 trillion in investment the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) says is needed by 2020.
In its 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, released in March, the ASCE gave the nation a grade of D, with aviation, roads and transit getting D's; and ports and rail a C and C, respectively. The overall grade was a slight improvement from D in 2009, but the group emphasized in a report that "America's critical infrastructure—principally, its roads, bridges, drinking water systems, mass transit systems, schools, and systems for delivering energy—may soon fail to meet society's needs."
With its job-creation allure, infrastructure spending can command bipartisan support, but that doesn't necessarily mean new funding is readily forthcoming. Dating to the interstate construction of the 1950s, the Highway Trust Fund finances highway and mass-transit investment with an 18.4-cent excise tax on gas and other fuels, but that hasn't been raised in 20 years; due to inflation, the fund's purchasing power is only about 62 percent of what it was.