MELISSA BLOCK, host:
After that I-35 bridge collapse in 2007, it was reported that more than 73,000 bridges around the country were rated structurally deficient by the Federal Highway Administration, and another 80,000 rated functionally obsolete.
Well, this week we heard President Obama propose $50 billion in infrastructure spending to rebuild roads, bridges and runways and construct new rail lines.
President BARACK OBAMA: I am announcing a new plan for rebuilding and modernizing America's roads and rails and runways for the long term. I want America to have the best infrastructure in the world. We used to have the best infrastructure in the world. We can have it again.
(Soundbite of applause)
BLOCK: We're going to get a report card now on the country's infrastructure from Blaine Leonard. He's president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Welcome to the program.
Mr. BLAINE LEONARD (President, American Society of Civil Engineers): Thank you, Melissa, nice to be here.
BLOCK: And if that bridge collapse in 2007 was a big wakeup call to the country, do you think that there's been significant progress made since then?
Mr. LEONARD: No, unfortunately, really not. It was a wakeup call. Some people started talking about doing some things, but the fact of the matter is the infrastructure continues to decline. Our report card grades the nation's infrastructure at a D, and despite all of the talk that followed the I-35 collapse, we haven't done anything significant to reverse that trend.
BLOCK: Well, you mentioned spending, and of course, part of the stimulus package passed last year was money for infrastructure, maybe $100 billion or so. I feel like as I drive around, I see road signs indicating that the construction project under way is because of the stimulus act. How is that money being spent?
Mr. LEONARD: The stimulus package was about $787 billion. Somewhere in the neighborhood of about $70 to $100 billion actually went into tangible, physical infrastructure.
Now, $70 billion is a lot of money, but when you compare that against the shortfall that we have in transportation alone of $550 billion, it helps, but it doesn't get us there.
Now, one of the challenges with the stimulus package was a significant portion of that money had to be spent very quickly, and so it quite often didn't go into large projects that take a lot of time to develop and get approved and get bid out. It went for a lot of routine maintenance things - pavement maintenance, for instance. And that was helpful, but it doesn't replace over 100,000 bridges that are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
BLOCK: One other thing that the White House is proposing, along with this funding for infrastructure, is an infrastructure bank that would combine government spending with private financing. What do you think about that idea?
Mr. LEONARD: We applaud that idea. We really have to be creative in figuring out a new way to provide a steady, consistent source of funding for our infrastructure.
In the 1960s, we were spending five percent of our gross domestic product on infrastructure. By the '90s, it was two and a half percent. Today, it's less than two percent. We need to find better sources of funding and consistent funding.
BLOCK: That earlier period that you're talking about, where there was so much more spending on infrastructure, of course that was when the highway system was being developed, when there was a whole lot of new building going on. And we're in a different phase now, right?
Mr. LEONARD: You're correct. In the 1950s through the '70s, we built an expansive interstate highway system. In the '70s, we built water and sewer treatment. In the late '70s, we built mass transit. And we built an infrastructure that was the envy of all the world.
Unfortunately, we then sort of patted ourselves on the back and moved on to some other priorities and enjoyed the value of this great infrastructure. And what we built in the '50s through the '70s is now 30 to 50 years old. And most of it has fallen into disrepair. It's just old and needs to be renovated and replaced. It's time for us to sort of pick up that ball and run with it again.
BLOCK: That's Blaine Leonard. He's president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, speaking with us from Salt Lake City. Mr. Leonard, thanks very much.
Mr. LEONARD: You're welcome. It's a pleasure to be here.
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