Watch other nations build infrastructure for 21st C prosperity. We can, too.

Yesterday the BBC wrote about the “Swiss Gotthard rail tunnel – an engineering triumph“, the world’s longest and deepest rail tunnel — part of a massive project to build world-class rail network for Switzerland.  It included a typical graphic for these kind of articles. Note what major nation does not appear on the list, and seldom appears on these lists.

Worlds longest tunnels

There have been many such articles lately, as nations upgrade their infrastructure for success in the 21st century. They build tunnels, fiber optic networks, high speed trains (fast, reducing pollution), etc. America appears in few of these stories.

News about America’s infrastructure has a different tone. “Why the U.S. Has Fallen Behind in Internet Speed and Affordability“.  CNN reports that damaged pipelines are a ‘ticking time bomb’, “the busiest rails shut down by failing power cables”, and “Bridges supported by crumbling 90-year-old beams.” You can use this interactive tool to see the Sorry State of America’s BridgesUS Airports are Awful; Here’s the problem.

And so forth, and each year brings forth new stories about the results of our underinvestment in critical public infrastructure. Visitors to America often remark about our decrepit third-world-like infrastructure for transportation and communication, while Americans exult over our shiny new weapons.

The Report Card on America’s infrastructure
By the American Society of Civil Engineers

Infrastructure Grades 2013

A portrait of a nation in decline
Gross Federal, State, and Local investments as a percent of GDP

During the tough times of the 1970s we slashed fixed investments in America. Reagan took them down again. The recession provided an opportunity to fix that, borrowing at low rates to inexpensively rebuild infrastructure using unemployed workers. Instead Obama has reduced them yet again, investing instead in war (e.g., the F-13, conflicts in Afghanistan and a dozen other places). A nation investing less than 3% of GDP on fixed investments cannot remain great. It’s living on the work of past generations.

Gross Government Investment/GDP


We are having an election. Journalists and our political elites prefer that we discuss trivia and exchange insults. Instead let’s ask the candidates hard questions about our actual problems — and demand action.

The political machinery bequeathed to us by the Founders lies idle, but remains powerful should we wish to use it. Let’s give our children an America better than the one we inherited, as our fore-bearers did for us.

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10 thoughts on “Watch other nations build infrastructure for 21st C prosperity. We can, too.”

  1. ” part of a massive project to built world-class rail net”………….Should be “build” ?
    “that damaged pipelines are ‘ticking time bomb’, the “the busiest rails shut down by failing power cables”……….One too many “the” ?

    Great article otherwise

  2. What is the basis for “A nation investing less than 3% of GDP on fixed investments cannot remain great.” I can see the validity of a number that is tied to the maintenance of existing infrastructure and one that reflects replacement and maintenance costs but the link to GDP is tenuous. As for the grades from ASCE, they are no better than getting grades from the NEA on education spending.

    What I see in Massachusetts is a preference for large road projects that have questionable economic returns while many smaller bridge safety projects go unattended. We are still building schools in towns like mine while enrollments are significantly declining.

    The Swiss tunnel projects have clear economic and environmental payoffs. We can’t get a natural gas pipeline to Eastern Mass and the Keystone Pipeline farce continues.
    We need to choose such infrastructure projects more wisely.

    1. Bernie,

      “but the link to GDP is tenuous”
      Comparing spending to national income is the standard ratio used for such comparisons over time and between nations.

      “We need to choose such infrastructure projects more wisely.”
      Since we’re doing so few projects, you seem to be missing the point. But then, that’s why we have this problem.

      “As for the grades from ASCE”
      Keep those eyes closed!

    2. Your characterization is gratuitous: My eyes are not shut at all.
      I see daily the vast difference between roads and bridges in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and the relative benefits per $ spent. I have just been privy to budget over-rides to build a $11 million dollar public safety building in a town of 6000 people and a probable $8 million renovation to a school where the enrollment is projected to be 60% of what it was 10 years ago. As a newly elected local official, I share responsibility for a recently built $12 million water treatment plant that has given my town the most expensive residential water supply in Massachusetts, yet the residents feel obliged to buy bottled water after the water treatment plant came on-line!
      Bridges need to be repaired, police and fire housed, water supplied that is safe and children provided with appropriate learning environments. All of the projects I just mentioned cost significantly more than they needed to – even granted the need for the project in the first place.
      As I said we need to choose our infrastructure projects more wisely.

      1. Benie,

        That’s wildly missing the point. We’ve not investing in our infrastructure. It’s just a fact, supported by a massive body of evidence, to which you are clearly closing your eyes.

        “All of the projects I just mentioned cost significantly more than they needed to”

        Yes, that’s a serious problem. It is however a different but related problem to our failure to even attempt to build necessary new infrastructure (and letting the existing structures decay). That is, we need water but have a leaky bucket. Fixing the bucket is one part of getting more water.

  3. Terrific Reports from ASCE. These come from serious People. I work with them regularly in my business. And they know reality; it’s their profession. And the chicanery that encloses and envelopes the world of “Infrastructure” is directly pointed at those who manage our cities etc.
    Pay attention and you, too, will see.


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