Is America’s infrastructure really so bad?
My colleague Charles Lane has an interesting column today taking issue with the idea that America’s road, bridges and highways are some sort of national disgrace. In particular, he bristles at those global rankings that give U.S. infrastructure comparatively low marks:
Among the 20 most populous countries, the United States ranks behind France, Germany and Japan, in that order. This would seem to confirm the case for U.S. inferiority in the developed world.
But France and Germany, in addition to being substantially smaller than the United States, are part of the European Union, a borderless single market from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Sure enough, when you average out the scores of all 27 E.U. nations, the United States beats them by a clear margin.
That’s one way to look at it. Back in 2005, before the recession, University of Texas Austin economist James Galbraith used to make similar arguments about EU vs. US comparisons on income inequality. Sure, America looks more unequal than Norway. Or Sweden. Or Denmark. But a country like Denmark is only the size of Wisconsin. If you compare the United States to the entire EU, the two continents start to resemble each other more closely. Average wages in Spain are much lower than average wages in Germany. Eastern Europe distorts the picture still further. Perhaps the same can be said of infrastructure. Comparing the vast United States to select portions of Europe isn’t always a fair fight.
That said, you don’t really need to look at international rankings to see that America’s infrastructure could use a serious upgrade. A 2010 GAO report, for instance, found that one in four bridges in the country is either “structurally deficient” and in need of repair or functionally obsolete. What’s more, the United States now has the worst air-traffic congestion in the world, partly because U.S. air-traffic control still relies on 1950s-era ground radar technology. And key parts of the nation’s electric grid are still quite vulnerable to crushing blackouts during storms. As Lane says, any infrastructure list that puts the United States below Barbados is a little absurd. But there’s still a lot of room for improvement.