College students with a D+ average would be unceremoniously picked up in mom’s SUV and hauled back home in disgrace. Handed out in 2017 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), U.S. infrastructure’s D+ is considerably more complex, infinitely more expensive – and yet, says ASCE Executive Director Tom Smith, completely reversible.

If anyone can take us to school on solving the mess, it’s Tom. In addition to undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, he has a law degree from Washington & Lee University and is a certified association executive (CAE) as well as Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV-SP). Before being appointed to his current position in 2015, Tom served as ASCE’s deputy executive director and was general counsel before that.

Yes, the 16 categories rated by ASCE are suffering from dire neglect, and yes, the cost to reverse Ds to Bs is a mind-frosting $2 trillion over 10 years. But when Tom delivers the keynote address at the Infrastructure Imperative conference this Nov. 13-15 in Cleveland, attendees will learn the challenges are solvable through sustained strategic investment, bold leadership, and comprehensive planning.

In our brief interview with Tom this week, we’re seeking both the heart as well as the mind of someone who’s been personally involved with each of ASCE’s six Infrastructure Report Cards since 1998.
Concrete Construction (CC): Describe your feelings and mood of your ASCE colleagues about the 2017 report card.
Tom: I’m an eternal optimist! We’ve had more success each time educating folks on the severity of the problem and, in many ways, changed the conversation when it comes to understanding the problem. You heard a great deal of discussion about it during the presidential election, and the current administration has had a fair amount of focus on construction.

But having been at this as long as I have, there’s also a certain amount of concern and a certain amount of frustration and impatience. As a nation, we’ve let this go for so long that now, frankly, there’s a certain amount of urgency.

CC: Do you think the public is fully informed?
Tom: At some level, yes. They sit in traffic, and they’re frustrated with that. If you’ve traveled abroad and compared [us] with other places, you see how badly we’re falling behind. So a segment of the population understands it because they’re experiencing it, but I don’t think people understand the extent of the problem. Why? Because so much infrastructure is out-of-sight-out-of-mind.

Until you have a crisis, until you have that water line break that’s in your town or neighborhood, you don’t really appreciate it. You might read about it in the paper; it’s happening in some other city, so it’s not impacting you directly. People don’t appreciate infrastructure until it disappears one day and you can’t ride the metro, you can’t get drinking water, you don’t have power.

I know eyes gloss over when they see all the zeros associated with infrastructure needs. But think of your house or your car. Try not maintaining those for just a few months – or go for a year – and you can imagine what will happen, especially with a car. If you’re not changing fluids and doing basic maintenance, it’s amazing how fast it deteriorates ... and it’s amazing how much more the cost goes up the longer you don’t maintain it.

CC: But our culture doesn’t embrace giving something up to get something of greater value. What would induce the majority to demand legislative action if that action will personally cost them?
Tom: It’s interesting you mention culture because I do think there’s an element of that.

Our culture isn’t focused on the right things. We spend X dollars a week for Netflix and for Starbucks and entertainment, sports, you name it; but when it comes to drinking water or transportation – key things people need to survive and the country needs to compete in the global economy – we expect it all to just sort of happen and not have to pay for it.

We need to change the way we prioritize. Infrastructure is the main thing you’ve got to have for a functioning civilization, so it has to be a No. 1 priority.

Part of this is education and changing a mindset – and thinking forward about your kids and grandkids; not just resting on our laurels, living off the labor of past generations.

CC: ASCE gave its only B to Rail, which, on the freight side, benefits from billions in private investment. Is that a case for privatizing all infrastructure?
Tom: Privatization is one of the tools in the toolbox, but not the answer for everything.

To address the entire problem, you really need federal investment because, with transportation for example, you can’t toll everything. It requires federal, state, and local investment. We think the gas tax should be increased to fund the Highway Trust Fund. That’s just a reasonable way to pay for transportation infrastructure – and you have to pay for it.

I think over half the states have raised their gas taxes in the last five years or so, and incumbents continue to get re-elected – it’s not the political career-killer people thought it might be.

CC: Two trillion dollars is an almost unfathomable sum ... can we really get there?
Tom: It’s not spending; it’s investing. Investing in infrastructure creates jobs, moves your economy forward, makes you globally competitive. There’s really no choice.

Is it a large number? Yes. Relative to the entire budget? No. And are there solutions? Absolutely.

A lot of it will be leadership. It’s going to require our industry to speak with one powerful voice – to make sure people understand the extent of the problem and the solutions.

If we get everybody together at a conference like this, talking about solutions, we can move the needle.