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.