The Crumbled Road
Crumbling road in Paso Robles, California. Photo by flickr user Nonnygoats

The Economist has a feature-length piece about the sad state of American infrastructure and the collaspe of infrastructure investment as the transportation systems we have begin to crumble around us.

America, despite its wealth and strength, often seems to be falling apart. American cities have suffered a rash of recent infrastructure calamities, from the failure of the New Orleans levees to the collapse of a highway bridge in Minneapolis, to a fatal crash on Washington, DC’s (generally impressive) metro system. But just as striking are the common shortcomings. America’s civil engineers routinely give its transport structures poor marks, rating roads, rails and bridges as deficient or functionally obsolete. And according to a World Economic Forum study America’s infrastructure has got worse, by comparison with other countries, over the past decade. In the WEF 2010 league table America now ranks 23rd for overall infrastructure quality, between Spain and Chile. Its roads, railways, ports and air-transport infrastructure are all judged mediocre against networks in northern Europe.

The article goes on to highlight the massive short comings and why they are so worrying. The US already has worse transportation infrastructure by most measures: longer commute times (only the Romanians and Hungarians have it worse), more traffic fatalities (60% above the OECD average), poor on-time performance and overbooked, crowded airports with increasing numbers of passengers stuck on the tarmac.  The picture has already ceased being pretty.

What’s worse, compared to most nations investing in their infrastructure, we are facing a much different demographic future. The great nations of East Asia and Europe have falling or more slowly rising populations while America’s is expected to grow by 40% over the next four decades.  China (eagerly looking forward to population decline) invests 9% of its GDP in infrastructure, Europe (also facing a population squeeze) invests 5% and the US just 2.4%. With so many more people expected, we need relatively more investment, not less.

One sentence really popped out at me:

American road taxes collected at the federal, state and local level covered just 72% of the money spent on highways that year, according to the Brookings Institution, a think-tank.

So much for roads being paid for by user fees. There’s more about the perverse incentives to promote new driving  in the ways the Feds allocate highway money and how cost-beneift analysis is sorely absent.

The solution to these problems are pretty clear. If we raised the gas tax, we’d have more money for instrastructure. If we spent less money on new highways, we’d have more money to maintain the roadways we have. And if we could find more dedicated funding streams, we’d have more money to invest in infrastructure. Unfortunately, with Congress in a tax cutting mood, states forced to slash budgets and gas prices rising with no ceiling in sight, none of these seem likely. Instead, we’re looking at yet another way we are leaving our children in a worse place than our parents left us.

31 Replies to “American Infrastructure Falling Apart”

  1. Here’s a post where I can’t argue with anything said. The state of the nation’s infrastructure is indeed deplorable, at best.

    It doesn’t help that from my perspective when new construction is/has begun, its often sub-par as to what was built even twenty or thirty years ago. I once helped move/align an old house built in the early teens up in the CD, to say the least the wood was top notch quality, and it was when 2x4s were actually that.

    1. America began to mortgage it’s future in the 50’s and beyond – racking up debts to foreign nations like there was no tommorrow. Now that those debts are all piling up interest on interest, many of our assets are going into foreclosure, so to speak.
      America in decay is not much different than the bank Repo down the block where the lawn isn’t even mowed one in a while.

  2. Also, “Although America still builds roads with enthusiasm, according to the OECD’s International Transport Forum, it spends considerably less than Europe on maintaining them. In 2006 America spent more than twice as much per person as Britain on new construction; but Britain spent 23% more per person maintaining its roads.” Hmm.

    1. Yeah, not only does Europe have better passenger rail and transit, their roads are better maintained and not on the brink of collapse, despite much of their freight carried by trucks.

      1. Germany spends $600,000 per year per mile maintaining the Autobahn, on top of a great rail transit network.

  3. Here’s a counterpoint to the Economist article:

    http://www.newgeography.com/content/002217-the-transportation-politics-envy-the-united-states-europe

    This says that traffic in Europe is worse than in the U.S.

    “The most comprehensive work trip data in Europe is maintained by Eurostat, the statistical agency of the European Commission. The Eurostat data indicates that average commute times in Europe are somewhat more than in the United States in metropolitan areas of similar size (Figure 1), when compared to the comprehensive data from the US Census Bureau. For example, among metropolitan areas of more than 5 million population, the daily round-trip average commute is under 58 minutes in the United States, less than the 64 minutes in Europe. European commute times are longer in all population categories ”

    “INRIX compared 2010 peak period traffic delays in metropolitan areas of the United States and Europe. As with commuting time, the average travel delay per driver was greater in Europe than in the United States in every population classification.”

    And I love this:

    “High-Speed Rail Envy: Finally, The Economist decries the lack of high-speed rail in the United States, noting that:

    “The absence of true high-speed rail is a continuing embarrassment to the nation’s rail enthusiasts.

    “It is hard to imagine a more pathetic standard for evaluating public policy than “satisfying rail enthusiasts.” It is well known that that governments from Washington to London, Athens and Lisbon are in serious financial difficulty. It is a time for limiting public expenditures to matters of genuine priority. That does not include high speed rail.”

    1. I only need to look at the author of that article to know that it’s not worth reading.

    2. Funny thing is that many of us “rail enthusiasts” aren’t satisfied with the concept of HSR, building it is another story. So using a lame statement as a qualifier for such a enormously large public expenditure project that encompasses a vast array of the taxpaying base and its political voice behind it literally demeans almost everyone involved. Good job there.

      As for financial difficulties, yes indeed that part is true and refutable. As to priorities, did you all of a sudden determine the only “true” projects to be funded? I’m on-board with the idea of spending money wisely, efficiently, and in the best places to boot. But like it or not, this country has to do something about its transportation network, for both commerce and the traveling public.

    3. Better than your usual trolling, I expected another even-firemen-can-telecommute style response.

      1. Ryan, as for me being a troll, far from it. I don’t link my pbase site every time I post since I don’t regularly update it. I have no qualms posting my name, its laborious is why I don’t.

        So you’re calling me a troll for what reason? I don’t understand your mentality on this one.

      2. My apologies to you, Ryan. It was hard for me to differentiate. Many, many thanks to you Bruce, I really appreciate it.

      3. If he was replying to you, he’d reply to you and you wouldn’t see a line that connected to the bottoms of vertical lines before the line that connects to the tops.

    4. But at least in many European cities, you have the choice of efficient and in many cases, right of way public transportation; so one can opt out of driving if he or she so chooses.

  4. That’s not Paso Robles, its actually down near Point Mugu south of Oxnard and Camarillo.

    1. Last time I was in Paso Robles it was 40 miles inland. I just figured the beach erosion down there was pretty rapid.

  5. The great nations of East Asia and Europe have falling or more slowly rising populations while America’s is expected to grow by 40% over the next four decades.

    God Lord…how did they come to that conclusion!

    If you subtracted immigration, over the last 3 decades the population of America would have shrunk just like with Europe. “Native born” Americans have a replacement rate that hovers or goes beneath 2.0

    And in the last few years, immigration from our chief source, Mexico, has dwindled to nothing. Also, Mexico’s high birth rates — the source of the population pressure — have plummetted from 6.0 to 2.0!

    Other nations that normally supply many immigrants are either having decreasing birthrates or building their domestic economies or both. India is an example of a country that will end up being a net importer of workers as its nation grows and builds “infrastructure”.

    So, in my estimate, America really has too much, not too little infrastructure. Cities especially are burdened with a lot of obsolete and redundant structures that are costing billions to repair or replace when in fact, they should be strongly looking at simply letting them decay or actively remove them ( Viaduct, 520 bridge come to mind in this region).

    1. If you think we have too much infrastructure, why are so many of your posts advocating building more of it? Your proposal to add lanes/levels to I-5 comes to mind…

      1. If we were to remove 520, we wouldn’t need the extra lane, I agree.

        But right now much of the traffic on I-5 is simply trying to get around — not into — down town.

  6. For yor-all edification to consider as where responsibilities lay:
    ——

    Mayor Mike is right about doing a workable “Working Waterfront” Surface-Boulevard Alaskan Way Design FIRST. The “wise” tunnel option of C/c, or, an elegant-elevated could follow, if necessary. And do a better job than the DBT+MercerWest messfiasco.

    The engineering community outside Seattle respects Mike Mcginn’s instinctual understanding of proper engineering. The majority outside Seattle think you guys have screwed up, big time. Thanks to Mayor Mike and partner O’Brien. Thanks for the Mikes Mcginn & O’Brien Showdown against some worst dumb DOT ideas.

    Please folks, just pass it along… be prepared for a barrage of info-mercials of misinformation pro-supportive of the dear little dbt, pay no attention to how a Lake Union- to-Queen Anne “HIGHWAY” zooms more traffic through and face a steep decline at the Mercer Place turn north. Such bad planning, it’s embarrassing.

    The Seawall should be strongest for future sea level rise and storm. The strongest seawall has cut/cover behind it for maintenance and repair. Also offers a “compensatory” sub-surface waters channelling system that works better than as planned for the DBT.

    Waterfront Streetcar lines are a Historical must-have, no buts. Reignite the Broad RR Bridge concept design interest, at least for managing traffic during reconstruction if not a permanent installation.

    Sorry to bother you guys, but I’m concerned and offended by both right and left argumentation. Your mayor is willing to cooperate with people who aren’t near as willing. As candidate he was & as mayor he is the man for the job, with able help from fewer spokespersons and while the new design crew are now showing promise. Thanx and again, sorry for inability to understand how transit designers can miss the premise of circulator one-way trolleybus routes would revolutionize downtown seattle transit.
    Talk about yer no-brainers…Sheesh

    My prescription for Alaskan Way is a doable “Pre-AWV” rather than a “Pre-seawall Piered Openings”. The new seawall must be strengthened at its current location; perhaps pushed-west 30+’ at Old Ferry Landing to create plaza.

  7. I wonder what the participants of the original Boston Tea Party would think of the claim that paying taxes approved by the people’s own elected representatives for the legitimate maintenance of their country, amounts to tyranny.

    Our country had the good fortune to be founded during the Age of Reason. I really hate to think what our current period is going to be known as the Age of in 200 years. Somehow I don’t think the Donald Trump quarter is going to get many hits on E-bay.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Didn’t the early nation nearly go broke because many states failed to contribute to the Fed? The Constitutional Convention of course took care of that little issue.

  8. Of course, the real problem with lack of revenue for infrastructure repair and maintenance is the enormous amount of tax revenue being wasted on stupid, unnecessary new projects, like the deep bored tunnel and all of ST’s trains.

    In our area, Sound Transit is the poster child for unbelieveably stupid waste of billions of tax dollars. Link light rail, at $160 million/mile for Central Link and $600 million/mile for U-Link is stupid beyond belief.

    We could be much better off maintaining our roads and bridges if we weren’t wasting billions and billions of tax dollars on incredibly stupid little trains.

    Sounder trains are the same thing — an utter waste of tax dollars.

    And the First Hill Streetcar, at over $200 million? What is the point of that? A little frill for yuppies. Accomplishes absolutely nothing. $200 million would repair a lot of lane miles of streets in Seattle, or build one little toy trolley line.

    The sheer stupidity of the transit expenditures in our area is just astonishing.

    You people are the problem! You talk about our infrastructure falling apart, while you support every incredibly stupid waste of money that ST or McGinn can come up with. $200 million for one little streetcar line? lol And you can’t see the utter stupidity of that?

    The problem is YOU.

    1. I bet if you say “stupid” one more time people will take your opinion more seriously.

    2. Yup, spend more on roads to keep more people reliant on cars so they can keep filling ’em with petroleum products, thereby lining the pockets of oil companies and filling the coffers of countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Brazil, *Canada*, etc. If we were able to cut our oil consumption in half, can you imagine how much better our balance of trade would look?

      I wonder how much of the US GDP is put towards auto-oriented transportation? Roads & related infrastructure, car maintenance, fuel, insurance, car accidents, etc. Might make a few urban rail systems look rather cheap.

  9. Well, it’s a given that building new things is more popular (and politically rewarded) than maintaining old things. No politician wants to raise taxes just to support higher costs of things that already exist, when there are new things that could be built instead. That’s true for both roads and trains – if you’re in old east coast rail cities, you’re watching west coast cities get new light rail systems as your subways decompose. And it’s hard and expensive to reconstruct systems that people depend on, and to fix them under traffic.

    Even in the old days – early rail systems in America were built by private developers so that the suburbs they were building could be accessible. Once they sold their new homes they had no incentive to maintain those systems, so they let them rot. Then in the thirties and forties they let them rot some more while the nation was at war, leaving them totally depreciated and ready to turn over to public ownership.

    At some point you can’t just scrap every urban transportation system and build a new one. One of these days we’ll need to find a way to take care of the stuff we have instead. But that won’t happen without some change in how political investment decisions are made.

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