U.S. losing ground in global marketplace, report finds

Falling behind Panama and Malaysia; Lilliputians when compared with the port of Shanghai; a once mighty rail system now rated 18th in the world; an overall ranking below a dozen other nations, including Luxembourg; and sinking fast without a blueprint to compete in the burgeoning global economy.

That’s the United States as portrayed in the second independent report this week on the dreary state of the nation’s physical infrastructure.

“Our competitors tore a page out of America’s success story, applied the lessons to their own systems and challenges, and now they’re sprinting ahead of us,” concludes the study released Thursday by a nonprofit group led by two former governors, Pennsylvania’s Edward G. Rendell and California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

“Meanwhile, we are trying to operate in a 21st century economy with an infrastructure network that was conceived before globalization, the digital revolution and population growth transformed the world economy,” the report says.

The bleak study by the bipartisan advocacy group Building America’s Future came two days after an American Society of Civil Engineers report saying that the United States needs to spend an additional $1.1 trillion on infrastructure by 2020 or suffer a dire economic reversal.

While the engineers focused largely on the domestic impact of eroding U.S. infrastructure, Thursday’s report places the issue in the greater context of the global economy.

Drawing data from a variety of sources, including a report on global competitiveness by the World Economic Forum, Thursday’s report presents an avalanche of facts that together make a case that the United States is rapidly falling behind in the world economy.

Once the world leader, U.S. rail infrastructure was ranked 18th by the Economic Forum, beset with congested choke points and grade-level crossings that force trains to low speeds. The nation’s air transport system was rated 30th in the world, behind Malaysia and Panama.

The Port of Shanghai, the world’s largest, handles more containers than the eight largest U.S. ports combined. Major West Coast ports are congested, and only two East Coast ports can handle a new breed of megaship, so Canada is the destination for a larger share of ships from China.

The importance in a global economy of ports and airports, and the roads and rail lines that service them, is underscored, the report said, by the fact that as much as 60 percent of U.S.-made products are exported.

“Other countries are building their ports and modernizing their ports, and making it so that once you get [goods] into a port you’re able to move things around the country,” said Marcia L. Hale, president of Building America’s Future. “We can’t export unless we find a way to move these goods that are made in the United States to our trading partners. You need to have good transportation and ports to be able to do that.”

Citing a “striking lack of vision” in the United States, the report summarizes a collective investment in infrastructure by European nations and national strategies in other developing industrial powers.

“Some countries, even in hard economic times, are still investing in their infrastructure because they see the long-term benefits of it,” Hale said. “Some of the countries that are growing so fast — China — have decided they are going to build their infrastructure to be able to compete 10, 20, 30 years from now.”

By contrast, the report says, the United States spends just about what it did on infrastructure in 1968, adjusted for inflation, when the nation’s economy was smaller and less intertwined with the global marketplace.

“Without a similar strategic plan of attack to create a state-of-the-art transportation network, the U.S. will be left far behind,” the report says.

The group recommends greater investment, targeting federal funds to projects that ease bottlenecks and expand capacity at ports and key junctures, establishing an infrastructure bank and encouraging innovative approaches that bring private financing into the public sphere.

“The foundations of our national economy are cracking, and it’s not enough just to repair the cracks,” the report concludes. “We must extend the foundation, stronger and wider, to support a new century of economic growth.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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