Notes on a society in crisis (1): America’s poor infrastructure
On April 1st, my book, Dagbok från USA, came out in Sweden. It will also soon be published in English (as an e-book for Kindle and for other readers) with the title: “Diary from the United States – Notes on a society in crisis“. As an appetizer for English speaking readers, I will the coming weeks publish some excerpts from the book.
America’s poor infrastructure – and what it suggests about the inadequacy of the political system
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) regularly publishes a review of the state of the U.S. infrastructure – roads, bridges, dams, schools, energy, water supply facilities etc. The most recent report from 2009 gives the country a D (see table). The American grading system goes from A (excellent) to F (failing) with C as average or passing. A grade of D is poor.
In a separate study from 2011, the ASCE estimates that bad roads cost the U.S. economy $130 billion a year, a substantial sum, roughly one percent of GDP. Mostly this is due to the damage to vehicles caused by bad roads. The rest is attributed to the fact that transportation on poorly maintained roads takes longer.
The ASCE is not alone in giving U. S. infrastructure a poor rating. According to Infrastructure 2011, a study with a global perspective conducted by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young, the verdict is harsh:
The United States notably continues to lag its global competition – laboring without a national infrastructure plan, lacking political consensus, and contending with severe federal, state, and local budget deficits that limits options … In contrast with its global competition, the United States is lurching along a problematic course – potentially losing additional ground.
On several occasions, the World Economic Forum has published wide-ranging and well-conducted studies of the competitiveness of various countries. The latest report was published in 2010. American infrastructure ended up in fifteenth place, a good bit behind many of the main competitors in Europe and Asia (Germany is in place 2, England 8, France 4, Japan 11, and Singapore 5). As for “overall infrastructure quality”, a composite measure in the study, the U.S. is in place 23 between Spain and Chile.
The American infrastructure measured by European standards is in bad shape, as any European knows who has driven a car on U.S. roads or used U.S. trains for any amount of time. From this perspective, the ASCE’s low marks appear relevant and expected. For a long time, several decades, investments in infrastructure in the U.S. have remained at about half the European level. In Europe, we invest roughly 5% of GDP in infrastructure annually; in the U.S. today about 2.5% of GDP.
The ASCE estimates that to get U.S. infrastructure back to a passing level, or a grade of C, would cost $2,200 billion, spread over a 5-year period. This is an enormous amount, roughly 15% of U.S. GDP in 2011. It’s comparable to all of Sweden’s production capacity being dedicated for five years to one sector of the economy.
There is a deeper problem. If we talk about ground transportation, the focus during the past 50 years has been on the road system. In a few decades, from the 1950s onwards, America made huge investments of federal funds in roads. Most of the interstate highways came into being during this period. These gigantic investments have shaped the American transportation system on land. To put it another way, most of American ground transportation is centered on the car. Measured in terms of average number of miles per year and vehicle, Americans drive 50% more than the citizens of any other Western country; Italy comes closest. The railways have, relative to the car, been downgraded to a secondary role, especially for passenger traffic. Today, when the road systems have large unmet maintenance needs, when the environment and climate issues cry out for transportation systems other than road and air, and when competing countries in both Europe and Asia are investing heavily in high-speed trains, the infrastructure problems in the U.S. appear more fundamental. (I read somewhere that Amtrak between Washington and Boston achieves an average speed of 70 miles per hour. In comparison, the French TGV runs at an average of 130 miles per hour between Paris and Lyon.)
It’s understandable that the authors of the Infrastructure 2011 report demand a national strategic plan for U.S. infrastructure. What the ASCE is doing with its grading is to put the finger on one of the most crucial political problems in the United States. It clearly shows that the U.S. political system is in a dead end when it comes to infrastructure. For a visitor, it’s beyond belief that politicians put U.S. competitiveness in jeopardy in this way, because that is what in the end this is all about. Or as Stephen E. Flynn, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes it when he reads the ASCE’s rating: “It’s the kind of report card you would have expected on the eve of the collapse of the Roman Empire.”
“America’s transportation infrastructure, Life in the slow line”, Economist, April 28th, 2011;
“Infrastructure 2011: A Strategic Priority”, 2011, Urban Land Institute / Ernst & Young, Washington, DC;
“2009 Report Card for American Infrastructure”, American Society of Civil Engineers, March 2009;
“The Global Competitiveness Report, 2010-2011”, 2010, Word Economic Forum, Geneva;
First published (in Swedish): September 1, 2011