["Enroute high" aeronautical chart of the airspace around Washington, DC, via the US Division of the International Virtual Aviation Organization and SkyVector.com. American airports rely on obsolete ground-based air traffic control,a system whose "imprecision obliges controllers to keep more distance between air traffic, reducing the number of planes that can fly in the available space" and which "forces planes to use inefficient routes in order to stay in contact with controllers".]
“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.”
Of course, there is nothing new about this issue (which we’ve called the infrastructural public policy problem), but it is worth reiterating, given the ease with which such reports pass before our eyes and fade from memory. It’s quite unfortunate that, if one were to answer descriptively (and in specific reference to the United States) FASLANYC‘s call for an authentically American infrastructural urbanism, the primary distinguishing characteristics you would begin with would be descriptors like “underfunded”, “crumbling”, “antiquated”, and “poorly planned”.
The Economist‘s article does go beyond the simple description of the problem, to sketch some of the roots of the problem and describe some policies which might ameliorate the problem:
“If Washington is spending less than it should, falling tax revenues are partly to blame. Revenue from taxes on petrol and diesel flow into trust funds that are the primary source of federal money for roads and mass transit. That flow has diminished to a drip. America’s petrol tax is low by international standards, and has not gone up since 1993. While the real value of the tax has eroded, the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure has gone up. As a result, the highway trust fund no longer supports even current spending. Congress has repeatedly been forced to top up the trust fund, with $30 billion since 2008.
Other rich nations avoid these problems. The cost of car ownership in Germany is 50% higher than it is in America, thanks to higher taxes on cars and petrol and higher fees on drivers’ licences. The result is a more sustainably funded transport system. In 2006 German road fees brought in 2.6 times the money spent building and maintaining roads. 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.
The federal government is responsible for only a quarter of total transport spending, but the way it allocates funding shapes the way things are done at the state and local levels. Unfortunately, it tends not to reward the prudent, thanks to formulas that govern over 70% of federal investment. Petrol-tax revenues, for instance, are returned to the states according to the miles of highway they contain, the distances their residents drive, and the fuel they burn. The system is awash with perverse incentives. A state using road-pricing to limit travel and congestion would be punished for its efforts with reduced funding, whereas one that built highways it could not afford to maintain would receive a larger allocation.”
Read the full article at the Economist.