US Infrastructure Woes Mount to $2 Trillion for Repairs Alone

US Infrastructure Woes Mount to $2 Trillion for Repairs Alone

China invests 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure; the United States, a paltry 3 percent. Western Europe is cutting greenhouse gas commissions as it links rail and road systems for moving people and freight efficiently. Canada and Australia also are trying to contend with aging systems and have leaped beyond the U.S. in doing so.

The Urban Land Institute and Ernst and Young have tracked infrastructure investment trends in the United States, among its global peers and in developing countries for five years. So it's not news that the U.S. has long been a laggard when it comes to looking after roads, bridges, transportation networks and systems for treating, delivering and storing water, ULI and E&Y note in their latest report.

What's striking about the study released this week are its details on how far the U.S. has fallen behind and the report's strongly worded criticism.

"In contrast with its global competition, the United States is lurching along a problematic course -- potentially losing additional ground," said the report, "Infrastructure 2011: A Strategic Priority," the fifth in a series of annual studies.

Furthermore, the report said:

"After more than 30 years of conspicuously underfunding infrastructure and faced with large budget deficits, increasing numbers of national and local leaders have come to recognize and discuss how to deal with evident problems. But a politically fractured government has mustered little appetite to confront the daunting challenges, which include finding an estimated $2 trillion just to rebuild deteriorating networks ...

"Although President Obama ranks infrastructure as one of his administration's top three "win the future" initiatives (together with education and innovation), the chances for setting and executing national priorities appear to be foundering in partisan debate over tax burdens and how to cut exploding government debt ... The overriding stumbling block to generating support for rebuilding the country's infrastructure remains simple public resistance to paying more for these systems ... Although informed voters have passed bond issues and even some sales tax increases for new projects, Congress perennially refuses to raise the federal gasoline tax or allow states to put new tolls on interstate highways, which could help ramp up funding for mass transit alternatives and repair existing highways and bridges."

Other countries also are confronted with fiscal and economic constraints and most are familiar with divisive politics. Yet several nations have managed to make progress in dealing with infrastructure issues.

The report singles out some of the more significant efforts, most of which complement the countries' sustainability goals.

The infrastructure investments include:

  • The United Kingdom's $326 billion commitment over the next five years to continue infrastructure projects for rail transportation, energy production and broadband access, despite a severe austerity budget. The projects emphasize reducing carbon emissions through investments in renewable energy.
  • Plans by France, Germany, Spain and Italy to continue building out high-speed rail and freight networks among major cities, and extending transport links across borders. The moves are among the countries' efforts to fulfill European Union objectives to lower carbon footprints.
  • Australia's work on existing infrastructure while setting future investment priorities. Projects to expand ports, revamp rail lines and relieve urban traffic congestion take precedence.
  • China forging ahead with plans to complete a 10,000-mile, high-speed rail network by 2020 and other infrastructure projects. The country's new airports, ports and subway systems are intended to help fuel and foster China as the world's second-largest economy.
  • Brazil ramping up road, transit and water projects. The efforts are going forward with an eye to the country's growing economy, and to Brazil's responsibilities and expectations as host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Other efforts include Canada's work to expand public-private partnerships in order to overhaul facilities, India's attempts to attract private financing for infrastructure, and the United Arab Emirates' and Kuwait's continued use of oil wealth to build out transport hubs and pursue energy efficient power and water solutions.

In addition to the global examples, the U.S. can look to some of its cities -- Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul. Seattle and Salt Lake City among them -- for models of infrastructure solutions that are based on mutual cooperation, especially in pooling resources, setting priorities and arriving at interest-based spending strategies, according to the report.

Tackling the problem may seem daunting for the country, but the challenge is not insurmountable -- provided that the nation faces facts, the study said. "For 2011, the United States is not alone in coming to grips with infrastructure ambitions and soberly assessing what can be done under challenging circumstances," the report advised. "That means downscaling ambitions and finding creative solutions."

ULI Executive Vice President Maureen McAvey sounded a further note of admonition and urgency for the U.S. "America's unwillingness to confront its infrastructure challenges is undermining the ability of our urban areas to compete globally," McAvey said in a statement. "If we persist with short-sighted decisions, we will lose talented workers and companies to nations and cities overseas that are committed to infrastructure ... Infrastructure as a national priority is not political rhetoric. It's a must to keep America's standing as a global leader in innovation."

The 2011 report on infrastructure is available from the Urban Land Institute at www.uli.org.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Mike Willis.