ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Well, now to an appraisal of American roads, bridges and other kinds of infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers says their condition has improved over the past few years, but only slightly. Four years ago, the engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a grade of D. Now, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, it's a D-plus.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The poor condition of many of the nation's critical systems does not come as news to the millions of Americans who commute by car or rail or who had seen their lights go out after a small storm or who have been flooded out of their homes by a failed levee. Gregory DiLoreto is president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

GREGORY DILORETO: We waste hours sitting in traffic, power outages become more frequent. We lose billions of gallons of water through leaky pipes. These things are costing us money and we're getting nothing for it.

NAYLOR: DiLoreto's group looked at 16 categories of infrastructure, from aviation to waste water. What it found was not encouraging. It handed out 11 Ds, 4 Cs and 1 B. And it gave a D-minus to the nation's system of levees.

DILORETO: I think most Americans are unaware that the nation has an estimated 100,000 miles of levees and many of these are more than 50 years old and they were originally built to protect farmlands and crops from flooding.

NAYLOR: He says since then, new developments have been built behind the levees exposing homes and businesses to threats. Repairing and rehabilitating the nation's levees alone could cost more than $100 billion. The engineers held their news conference with Washington, D.C.'s Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge serving as a backdrop.

The 63-year-old span carries a heavy stream of traffic over the Anacostia River and has been labeled structurally deficient, as are 1 in 9 bridges in America. Konjit Eskender is Washington's bridge engineer. She says her department is keeping a close watch on the Douglass Bridge.

KONJIT ESKENDER: We're continuously monitoring. It's like when you have an old car, you can drive it, but you're going to continuously spend money on it. And at one point, you will decide to replace it, right?

NAYLOR: The District's government has a plan to replace the bridge, which, along with some other interchange improvements, carries a price tag of more than $900 million. Nationwide, this report estimates it will take some $1.6 trillion more than is currently being spent to bring all of the nation's infrastructure to standard. Not an easy task when federal spending on transportation and elsewhere is being cut.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, though, says that's the wrong approach.

ED RENDELL: It's because of this literally crazed idea that spending money is automatically bad. The federal government, state governments have to spend money on certain things that are important. There's no question about that. We have to invest in our own growth. Businesses invest in their own growth and it pays off and so do we.

NAYLOR: Rendell heads a group pushing for infrastructure spending. Skeptics say the engineers are overstating the problem. Chris Edwards is an economist with the libertarian Cato Institute. He points to a measurement called the international roughness index. That's right, the international roughness index, which he says shows the nation's roads aren't all that bad, compared with other countries.

CHRIS EDWARDS: And the measurements show that America's highways are getting smoother and smoother, with fewer potholes and in better condition every year steadily. So I just don't think it's correct to say that America's highways and bridges are crumbling. They're certainly getting more congested and we need to deal with that, but they aren't crumbling.

NAYLOR: All sides of the infrastructure debate do agree that government at all levels will need private partners to help in funding much of the infrastructure work that needs to be done. Today's report card shows just how much of that work there is. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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