China now has about 46,000 miles of expressways — a close second to the United States — with plans to build that out to 112,500 miles by 2030. Almost all of the expressways are toll roads.
But, Zhao said, the United States still has three times as many cars as China.
“There’s no free lunch,” Zhao said. “For people to use these roads, they must pay money. . . . If China has so few automobiles, who pays the money to build the expressways?”
“China should build roads,” he said, “but not expressways.”
Zhao has been similarly critical of the high-speed rail system, arguing mainly that it is too expensive to build — at least three times the amount of normal train lines — and that the ticket prices are still far too high for average Chinese to afford. Echoing his argument for highways, Zhao said, “China should build more rail — but not high-speed rail.”
One reason behind the high-speed-rail construction was to make moving freight more efficient. Currently, freight and passenger trains share the same rail lines, slowing the transport of precious commodities such as coal. The high-speed rail lines were intended to take the passengers off the existing lines.
But the cheapest high-speed train ticket costs far more than the most expensive ticket on the older, slower trains, and passenger demand for the high-speed trains has been light. On lines where slow trains have been replaced, many traveling home for the Chinese New Year holidays now prefer to travel by car or bus — clogging the highways — instead of paying the ticket prices for the bullet trains.
Zhao is far from the only critic of the pace of the government’s infrastructure building, and many are now speaking openly.
“I believe we have already built too much infrastructure,” said Xu Xiaonian, a professor of economics and finance at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. “By too much, I mean ahead of economic development and ahead of demand.”
With high-speed rail, for example, Xu said, “it’s very clear. We have built too much. We are way ahead of what the economy needs.”
Pointing to the number of new airports and “highways without traffic,” Xu compared the building boom to the proposed “Star Wars” missile defense system championed by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s: “Tomorrow we may need it — is that an argument?”
Planning for the future
Other economists here make the opposite case — a rapidly developing country with a population of more than 1.3 billion people may not need the infrastructure now, but they will in the future. As an example, they point to the series of ring roads — the equivalent to the Capital Beltway — circling Beijing. At the time the third, fourth and firth ring roads were being constructed, they looked like a waste, with few cars. Now, most of the ring roads are jam-packed all times of the day and night.