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Fixing America’s infrastructure: Obama’s mission impossible?

President Barack Obama walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, upon his arrival on Marine One helicopter, after a quick trip to Decatur, Ga. to talks about his education plans following his State of Union address. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON: U.S. President Barack Obama has issued another reminder that America’s infrastructure, once the best in the world, is falling apart.

But fixing the cracks in the country’s foundation looks increasingly like a mission impossible. Obama spoke of the problem in urgent terms in his 2011 State of the Union address, halfway through the first term of his presidency: “We need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods and information ... Our infrastructure used to be the best but our lead has slipped. We have to do better.”

The president returned to the subject, if only in passing, in the first State of the Union address of his second term, on Feb. 12. He referred to “an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair” and placed it in the context of global competitiveness: “Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges or one with high-speed rail and Internet, high-tech schools and self-healing power grids.”

The enormity of the problem was highlighted recently by two expert reports that painted a devastating picture of the state of many roads, bridges, railways, seaports, airports, power grids and water treatment plants. On an international scale, the U.S. now ranks 14th in terms of infrastructure.

One report, aptly entitled “Falling Apart and Falling Behind,” was compiled by Building America’s Future, an independent group led by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and two former governors, Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. Separately, the American Society of Civil Engineers enumerated the damage to the economy caused by failing to invest in infrastructure. It complained about a vast gap between recognizing what is needed and a willingness to act.

Unless the United States spends $1.1 trillion (over and above what is already planned) on infrastructure between now and 2020, the engineers warned, it will lose $6.6 trillion in Gross National Product, trade and consumer spending. More than 3 million jobs would be lost. There is reason to doubt there will be spending on the scale the engineers’ report suggests. Republicans in Congress have scoffed at Obama’s request for $50 billion for transportation improvements.

In his State of the Union blueprint for his second term, the president proposed to halt the decline by creating public-private partnerships to attract private capital. He gave no details. So far, the United States is one of the few industrialized countries that lack a national policy for large-scale projects. That would require political compromise – difficult to see at a time when Republicans demanding spending cuts and Democrats urging investment in public works are waging ideological war.

America’s infrastructure problems predate today’s hyper-partisan environment in Washington. The Building America’s Future report blamed “a striking lack of vision” by a succession of American leaders who followed policies put in place in the 1950s instead of striving for innovation. As a result, American highways and railroads, airports and seaports are “stuck in the last century and ill-equipped for the demands of a churning global economy.”

That assessment is backed up by a plethora of astonishing examples. According to the report, congestion in Chicago, the busiest U.S. rail center, is so bad that it takes a freight train longer to get through the city limits than it does to get to Los Angeles. The 788 mile train ride from Chicago to New York takes 17 hours. The bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai, 822 miles, takes just five hours.

Other comparisons with China, the world’s rising power, are equally unflattering: “It is China that boasts the world’s largest ports and it is the Shanghai port that moves more containers than the top eight U.S. container ports combined ... China is now home to six of the world’s 10 busiest container ports – while the U.S.A. is home to zero.”

The U.S. fares just as badly in air transportation. The World Economic Forum, which compiles comparative rankings, places America’s air transport infrastructure in 30th place, behind Panama and Malaysia. U.S. air traffic congestion is the world’s worst. The average delay for all flights (56 minutes) is twice that of Europe.

Even the Interstate Highway System, America’s infrastructure jewel since construction began in the 1950s, has safety problems due to age and neglect: According to the Federal Highway Administration, 150,000 bridges (out of 600,000) need repair or updating.

Last October’s Hurricane Sandy brought home the vulnerability of another key element of the infrastructure – the electricity grid, now ranked 32nd on a global reliability scale. Sandy devastated large parts of the eastern seaboard and left hundreds of thousands of people without power for weeks.

The reason: In parts of New York and New Jersey, one of the biggest urban conglomerates, power lines are strung from utility pole to utility pole, much like in developing countries, and are easily cut by storms and falling trees.

Fixing all this would be difficult even if the “common purpose,” a concept frequently invoked by the president, actually existed. It does not, and there is no sign that the ideological divide that has paralyzed Washington is shrinking.

Bernd Debusmann is a former Reuters world affairs columnist. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 15, 2013, on page 11.

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