Take air travel: The United States, the report notes, now has the worst air-traffic congestion on the planet, with one-quarter of flights arriving more than 15 minutes late. One reason is that U.S. air-traffic control still relies on 1950s-era ground radar technology, even as the rest of the world has been shifting to satellite tracking (the FAA has begun the transition to a satellite-based system, though it’s moving slowly and future funding is a big question). According to recent World Economic Forum rankings, even Malaysia and Panama now boast better air infrastructure.
Nationwide, about 37 percent of all delays can be chalked up to outdated technology. In some cities, it’s worse: Two-thirds of all airport delays in the New York City area are due to air-traffic control, and, in an irritating game of dominoes, those delays then trigger delays at other airports across the country. In 2007, the Joint Economic Committee pegged the cost of all this waiting at $41 billion per year. Building America’s Future is essentially arguing that having Congress spend more money on infrastructure could, in many cases, pay for itself.
Here’s one reason, though, all may not go as planned: Although the worst delays are concentrated in the busiest metro areas, Congress tends to sprinkle money for improvements on as many localities as possible. In 2009, for instance, the FAA spent $2.6 billion on airport improvements, but only one-quarter of that money went to the country’s largest airline hubs (which, in sum, serve about three-quarters of traffic). It’s good to be a small state with disproportionate representation.