June 18, 2010
America Faces $2.2 Trillion Bill to Modernize Crumbling Infrastructure
After decades of underinvestment, the United States faces a $2.2 trillion repair bill to modernize the nation's crumbling network of public infrastructure, from railways to airports and roads to sewers, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
With budgets at the state and federal level pinched by economic recession, and a surging Tea Party skewing American politics towards a new spendthrift mentality, America may soon face diminished economic competitiveness and more potentially dangerous failures of public infrastructure.
In the Independent, British commentator Rubert Cornwell offers a clear-eyed perspective from across the pond on "the silent crisis that is undermining America: the creeping decay of its public infrastructure."
It's happening everywhere, from potholed interstate highways and grimy railways, to congested airports and a creaking air traffic control system that only adds to the increasingly third world experience of flying in the US. And hold your breath when you cross an American bridge: a 2005 study found that fully a quarter of them were structurally inadequate or obsolete.
Every now and then, the defects explode into the national consciousness - when breaches in scandalously neglected levees led to the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, or when the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed one sunny rush hour afternoon in August 2007, sending 13 people to their deaths as their cars plunged into the Mississippi river.
Another reminder is when friends return from foreign trips marvelling at the high-speed rail networks in Europe, Japan and China, or at other man-made wonders such as the Millau Viaduct in southern France. Why, they ask, can't we have this sort of thing?
Last month Amtrak, the national passenger rail network, unveiled a plan that would put Washington within 96 minutes of New York and barely three hours of Boston. The only problem was, it would take 30 years and cost $117bn. But even that is nothing compared to the $2.2trn which the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates is needed to get the country's infrastructure into good shape. In that context, the $50bn scheme announced by President Obama to improve roads, railways and airports is a drop in the ocean.
As Cornwell notes, it would be fiscally irresponsible, even outright dangerous, to further neglect America's ailing infrastructure. Efforts to repair and modernize the nation's network of public infrastructure can help spur economic recovery and both preserve and enhance U.S. economic competitiveness. So despite rising deficits, in fact, precisely because of them, public budgets should prioritize investment in infrastructure modernization as part of a responsible national fiscal policy. As Cornwell writes:
[O]pportunity still beckons. Long-term borrowing rates are rock-bottom; a 9.6 per cent unemployment rate underlines how much spare capacity exists in the economy. As the infrastructure declines, so does the country's international competitiveness. In short, everyone knows something must be done.
Somebody page the Tea Party...
See also: "Penny Wise and Pound Foolish: Why Obama's Symbolic Spending Freeze May Grow the Deficit"