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America’s infrastructure is crumbling. What should be prioritized?

President Biden's $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan would prioritize transportation, drinking water and broadband projects, among others. It comes after the American Society of Civil Engineers released its 2021 report card, giving the U.S. infrastructure a C-minus. Emily Feenstra, ASCE's managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, President Biden is floating proposals to pay for his $2 trillion infrastructure package.

    Our William Brangham brings us this look at why America's infrastructure is in such need of repair.

  • William Brangham:

    The president's plan includes funding for many infrastructure priorities, more than $600 billion in transportation infrastructure, more than $100 billion for drinking water projects, and more than $100 billion to expand broadband.

    Just last month, the American Society of Civil Engineers released its 2021 report card, and it gave America's infrastructure a C-minus.

    I'm joined now by Emily Feenstra. She is ASCE's managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives.

    Emily, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    I have to imagine, on one level, for people — for civil engineers like you, this has got to be an incredibly exciting time, when the president proposes a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure bill. But, more seriously, this is meant to address some very serious deficiencies in our country.

    Could you just give us a snapshot of what your record card tells us?

  • Emily Feenstra:

    That is an exciting time. I think it's been a long time coming, where a lot of these issues, the roads that we travel on and our transit networks and our water systems, have flown under the radar. And it's great to see the national attention on this issue.

    At the same time, I am a parent. I would not be happy if my kid brought home a C-minus. So we have a lot of work to do. And we have 11 categories still in that D range. And those are a lot of our legacy systems.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what types of things do you think jump to the top of the priority list of, look, if I had to choose, this is the stuff I think we have got to get done?

  • Emily Feenstra:

    One thing that we like is really that comprehensive approach.

    We look at 17 categories of the report card, and it's really a connected system. So, in a way, our ports are only as good as the roads and the rail that connect to them. At the same time, if you look at those categories and the D's, there's like a few that stand out.

    Our lowest grade and the report card were our transit systems. Our communities across the country are just facing a huge maintenance backlog when it comes to transit, and the pandemic certainly didn't help that. The agencies have been facing huge revenue declines.

    And so they were kind of kicked while they were already down. Wastewater utilities, another area where we're in the D's. There's a lot of work we could be doing. Inland waterways is another one, definitely under the radar for most Americans, but that's how farmers get their goods to market. And when those barges have to stop on the Mississippi River, it costs goods to increase more, hours of delay.

    And that's something we really need to prioritize.

  • William Brangham:

    I know there's been semantic quibbling going on, where the administration says infrastructure can include broadband and water systems and electric charging stations for E.V. cars.

    And Republicans say, no, that's not what we traditionally think of as infrastructure. I know the American Society tries to be nonpartisan and apolitical in all of this, but do you guys come down on this issue of what is infrastructure and what is not?

  • Emily Feenstra:

    I certainly think one road map is, again, our infrastructure report card.

    People are surprised to know that we look at those 17 categories. And one that I would point out that's been in our report card since 1998 — we have been doing this since 1998 once every four years — is school facilities.

    So, we have looked at schools. They have not gotten a lot of attention. But when you're thinking about where our kids are spending eight or more hours a day, and you look at the number of kids that are in portable classrooms or HVAC systems aren't updated, there's a lot of common ground. There are new things in the proposal that might go beyond the 17 categories.

    But, again, we appreciate that it includes core programs like surface transportation, but also water, the energy grid, inland waterways, and so many of these — these things that go out of sight, out of mind.

  • William Brangham:

    I hear everything that you're saying about the importance of these projects, but we know that many people look at this and think it's too much money to spend, a $2 trillion infrastructure bill is too high a price.

    What is your response to that?

  • Emily Feenstra:

    I can absolutely understand how, sometimes, it seems like sticker shock.

    But what people don't realize is that we're already paying. It's almost like a hidden tax from this gradually declining, deteriorating infrastructure that doesn't work the way that it should. And we have actually quantified that costs. In addition to the poor grades, we know that it costs American households on average $3,300 a year in personal disposable income.

    That's the equivalent of…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Brangham:

    That's a huge amount of money.

  • Emily Feenstra:

    Yes, it's a takeout dinner for a family of four each week. And that's significant.

    And it's things we know intuitively. When the pothole messes with your alignment that you have driven over five or six times on the way to work, when a water main break shuts down a business, when a blackout, as we saw in Texas, you know wreaks havoc, these things cost money. They add up. They make our economy less productive.

    And I think what — there actually is strong voter support for these investments. They pass in overwhelming margins at the ballot box at the local and state level. And what we need is that strong federal partner that we have been missing.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Emily Feenstra of the American Society of Civil Engineers, thank you very much for being here.

  • Emily Feenstra:

    Thanks so much.

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