Sorry, Progressives, But The ASCE Infrastructure Grade Boost Wasn’t The Result Of Obama’s “Stimulus”

I am generally very skeptical of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” as this self-interested group 1) gives the U.S. failing or near-failing grades, and 2) has a strong incentive to hype the “crumbling infrastructure” line since construction and maintenance — often with taxpayer dollars — is how their members put food on the table. Cato’s Chris Edwards and The Washington Post‘s Brad Plumer both highlight this fact. This year, ASCE gave America an infrastructure GPA of D+, an improvement over 2009’s D grade.

Ideological boosters for trillions of dollars in new federal infrastructure spending often prefer to ignore realities. Streetsblog’s Tanya Snyder, with whom I often completely disagree but who is generally a thoughtful Smart Growth advocate, highlights some of the ASCE report’s limitations. After all, these civil engineers constantly complain about not spending enough, but rarely do they focus on maximizing return on investment.

Now, Snyder and the rest of the anti-car, forced density gang don’t really care about return on investment (at least not in real measures of network efficiency) — but they do care a lot about where the money is going, specifically to ideologically preferred low-value projects like streetcars and bike trails. So, while I think this group of advocates is completely lost in the clouds, at least there’s a logical path you can follow to reach their incorrect conclusions.

However, not all responses to the ASCE report have been thoughtful or even coherent. In fact, some have been fact-free political spin. The most bizarre interpretation I’ve seen comes from Travis Waldron, a blogger for the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s Think Progress website, which currently functions as the Obama administration’s cartoonish house organ. Here’s how Waldron opens:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic stimulus package signed into law by President Obama in 2009, improved America’s infrastructure, but the United States still needs a massive investment over the next seven years to keep its infrastructure up to date, according to a report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Excuse me? Did we read the same report? The ASCE report card does mention the fact that the $4 billion in stimulus funding for transit helped prevent an even greater maintenance backlog, but this is not where the ASCE’s cautious optimism — and resulting grade increase — comes from.

According the the 2013 report, there were six areas of improvement over 2009: bridges (C to C+), drinking water (D- to D), rail (C- to C+), roads (D- to D), solid waste (C+ to B-), and waste water (D- to D). Of these, the only place where the ASCE mentions the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Obama’s “stimulus”) is under the rail section. And what does the rail section tell us? Well, of the total investment from freight rail and government-subsidized passenger rail (Amtrak), which since 2009 has totaled about $75 billion, approximately 95 percent of it came from the private railroads — not government and not the Obama stimulus.

Many forget the vital role that freight rail continues to play in America’s economy. Since the railroads were largely deregulated by the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, U.S. private freight railroads have invested more than $500 billion of their own funds (or about 40 cents on the revenue dollar) back into their networks. They are by far the least subsidized mode of freight transportation in the U.S. (Attention fellow transportation nerds: I recently completed a paper on freight rail regulation.)

This success story, often ignored, was the biggest single factor in boosting the ASCE average U.S. grade from D in 2009 to D+ in 2013. It was certainly not the voodoo Keynesian American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.