U.S. infrastructure lagging far behind Europe

Published 2 May 2011

America’s transportation infrastructure is quickly falling behind the rest of the world as roads continue to fall into disrepair, railroad lines age, and airports become more congested resulting in longer commute times, more delays, and increasing transportation-related fatalities; the United States now ranks twenty-third overall for infrastructure quality between Spain and Chile; government expenditures on infrastructure have fallen to just 2.4 percent of GDP; in contrast Europe invests 5 percent of its GDP on infrastructure and China 9 percent; U.S. infrastructure investment has fallen behind largely as a result of the highway trust fund’s declining revenues, which are generated from gas and vehicle taxes

America’s transportation infrastructure is quickly falling behind the rest of the world as roads continue to fall into disrepair, railroad lines age, and airports become more congested resulting in longer commute times, more delays, and increasing transportation-related fatalities.

Engineers frequently give poor ratings to the quality of U.S. roads, bridges, and railways. More troublingly, in recent years the United States has suffered from several major infrastructure calamities including the failure of levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the collapse of a bridge in 2007 in Minneapolis, and the collision of two passenger trains in Washington, D.C.

The Economist reports that the World Economic Forum now ranks the United States twenty-third overall for infrastructure quality between Spain and Chile.

Compared to Europe, individuals in the United States now spend more time on their average commute home than the overwhelming majority of their European counterparts. More time spent on lower quality roads has also led to more fatal accidents. In 2010, 33,000 Americans were killed in vehicular accidents, 60 percent above the average for most advanced industrial nations.

The Economist also points out that the fastest train in the United States is the Acela, travelling between Washington and Boston at an average of 70 miles per hour, in contrast, the French TGV runs at an average of 140 miles per hour. In addition, American trains are often late with only a 77 percent punctuality rating compared to European trains that are on time 90 percent of the time.

The Economist finds it “puzzling” that the United States is falling far behind the rest of the world in transportation infrastructure, despite the fact that “America’s economy remains the world’s largest; its citizens are among the world’s richest.”

A steady decrease in public spending on transportation and water infrastructure as well as maintenance is largely to blame for poor U.S. infrastructure.

Since its peak in the 1960s, when the government financed the construction of a massive interstate highway system, government expenditures on infrastructure have fallen to just 2.4 percent of GDP.

In contrast Europe invests 5 percent of its GDP on infrastructure and China 9 percent.

Furthermore, while the United States continues to build new roads, it spends little on their upkeep and maintenance. In 2006 the United States spent more than double what Britain spent per person on building new roads, but the U.K. spent 23 percent more per person on their upkeep.

To help improve U.S. infrastructure and boost investment, The Economist recommends that lawmakers increase taxes on gas and automobiles.

U.S. infrastructure investment has fallen behind largely as a result of the highway trust fund’s declining revenues, which are generated from gas and vehicle taxes. Currently fuel taxes are at 18.4 cents a gallon, far below European levels, and since 2008 the highway trust fund could no longer support current spending on infrastructure and Congress has been forced to appropriate $30 billion to the fund.

Owning a car in Germany costs 50 percent more than in the United States and higher taxes on gas and other driving related fees have helped generate a surplus in its infrastructure fund. In 2006 taxes brought in 2.6 times as much money for the German government as it had spent on building and maintaining roads, while for that same year American taxes only covered 72 percent of the money spent on highways.

With lawmakers wary of increasing taxes, some have proposed taxing oil rather than gas. In the past, during the negotiations for the Senate Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate change bill, large oil companies have even expressed a willingness to accept such a policy.

Other suggestions include increasing tolls or even a tax on the number of miles driven, which some cities are contemplating implementing.

While each of these proposals have their drawbacks, The Economist states that American lawmakers have no choice but to find new ways to fund transportation infrastructure as the U.S population is expected to grow by 40 percent over the next forty years placing an enormous strain on aging and inefficient infrastructure.

They write, “Whatever the source of new revenue, America’s Byzantine funding system will remain an obstacle to improved planning,” and if lawmakers cannot find a solution, “the American economy risks grinding to a standstill.”

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