the economist on american infrastructure – mammoth // building nothing out of something

the economist on american infrastructure


["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".]

The Economist reports on the sorry state of American transportation infrastructure:

“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.

4 Responses to “the economist on american infrastructure”

  1. faslanyc says:

    nice post, and great image. I had that economist article in mind when I wrote the recent piece on transnational American infrastructure. It’s great to see the topic discussed in that forum.

    One thing which I would criticize about that piece is the Euro-centric focus. They mention other American countries only once, saying the state of US infrastructure “overall quality” is between Spain and Chile. They then go on to city tons of facts and metric pulled from European countries. I know the focus is economic, and the US is traditionally linked to Europe in that discussion. But I would say regarding urbanism and infrastructure this is wildly inappropriate. Not that we shouldn’t look to Europe and understand how they are investing and what they are building, but they don’t even consider what Colombia is doing, Mexico, or our closest counterpart in terms of wealth, population, and territory- Brazil. We should at the least also consider that.

    The economist even belies this point, despite their bias, when they mention towards the end that “thanks to America’s largely non-European demographics” our infrastructures must handle a growing load in the years to come. They then start pointing to models in France and England. But continuing to apply that model here will not work like it does in Europe (a point made well by Varnelis in his Networked Ecologies, a book which I am coming to appreciate more and more). The continual Eurocentric referencing, and importation of concepts and paradigms, is what I meant by our “Europhilic infrastructural tautology”.

    Of course, I could be off base… thoughts?

    • rob says:

      Seems right on to me. I think your description of Euro-centric bias in the piece is accurate (though, to be fair to the Economist, in general — as opposed to in this specific piece — it has a more global perspective than the average European or American publication). There’s a general bias in the States, too, I think, which thinks of the rest of the Americas as rather backward and not at all as places that we would look to learn from. But I agree that we’re impoverishing our discussion if we don’t look to learn from the rest of the Americas.

  2. Robert says:

    I dont think you can generally say that the National Airspace System is obsolete compared to Europe. The Airspace over the United States carries much larger numbers in movements everyday, and that in an area that is divided by 20 countries in the European Union. In everyday operations the US Air Traffic Control and Air Traffic Flow Management is much more efficient than anything you’ll find in Europe under Eurocontrol.

  3. Robert says:

    And about German Road Fees, I dont know where they have these numbers from but there is only a road fee for commercial trucking on the “Autobahn”, many state, county and city roads and streets are in disaterous condition and the normal policy is to temporary fill the holes with patches instead of renewing the street, which in the long run would be more sustainable.