Study: $2 trillion needed for U.S. infrastructure

The United States is falling dramatically behind much of the world in rebuilding and expanding an overloaded and deteriorating transportation network it needs to remain competitive in the global marketplace, according to a new study by the Urban Land Institute.

Burdened with soaring deficits and with long-term transportation plans stalled in Congress, the United States has fallen behind three emerging economic competitors — Brazil, China and India, the institute said.

The report envisions a time when, like Detroit, U.S. cities may opt to abandon services in some districts and when lightly used blacktopped rural roads would be allowed to return to nature. Eventually, the report says, the federal gas tax will be increased; local governments will be allowed to toll interstate highways; water bills will rise to pay for pipe and sewer replacement; property and sales taxes will increase; and private, profit-seeking companies will play a much larger role in funding and maintaining public projects.

“Over the next five to 10 years, public concerns will grow over evident declines in the condition of infrastructure,” the report says. “At some attention-getting point after infrastructure limps along, platforms for reinvesting in America could gain significant traction and public support.”

The report is the latest in a series of studies to conclude that the nation will face dire long-term consequences if major investment in transportation revitalization is postponed.

“Infrastructure should be part of the larger conversation about ‘what do you want government to do and how do you want to pay for it?’ ” said Jay Zukerman of Ernst & Young, which conducted the institute’s study.

The report lends global perspective to an issue addressed last fall by a panel of 80 experts led by former transportation secretaries Norman Y. Mineta and Samuel K. Skinner. That group concluded that as much as $262 billion a year must be spent on U.S. highways, rail networks and air transportation systems.

Congress has failed to approve the two major bills that allow for long-term funding and planning for aviation and transportation. The Federal Aviation Administration has been operating under a funding bill that expired in 2007 and has been extended 18 times. The surface transportation act, which provides the balance of federal transportation funding, expired in 2009 and has been extended seven times.

As Congress debates how much should be spent and where to find the money, China has a plan to spend $1 trillion on high-speed rail, highways and other infrastructure in five years. India is nearing the end of a $500 billion investment phase that has seen major highway improvements, and plans to double that amount by 2017. Brazil plans to spend $900 billion on energy and transportation projects by 2014.

The United States, the institute report concludes, needs to invest $2 trillion to rebuild roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams that are reaching the end of their planned life cycles.

The report says the desire of Congress to curtail spending will push costs onto “budget-busted” state and local governments. It points to highways and water treatment plants, built with federal funds 40 to 50 years ago, that will become financial burdens to local governments as the time comes for replacement.

“We’re seeing less federal support and less local revenues because of unemployment,” said Maureen McAvey, executive vice president of the institute, a non-profit group that analyzes policies and programs. “Some of the ambitions some growing cities had just a few years about are being cut back or put on hold.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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