The United States covers 3.8 million square miles, with 95,471 miles of shoreline and about 12,000 miles of commercially navigable inland waterways; it soars from 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley to 20,310 feet above sea level at Mount Denali.
Miraculous as these engineering marvels are, it would be even more amazing if some U.S. infrastructure — e.g., the Boston-to-Washington passenger rail corridor, the up to 10 million homes that still get their water through lead pipes, or Texas’s electrical grid — did not need expensive modernization or replacement.
Yet the task before us is not to rescue a neglected, “crumbling” system, as President Biden put it while announcing his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan — in rare agreement with his predecessor, Donald Trump, who pitched his own infrastructure bill (without success) by talking about tiles falling from the ceiling inside New York City’s tunnels.
The real challenge is to take what is by any reasonable measure the best, or nearly the best, infrastructure in the world, and to sustain improvements that have already been occurring in recent years.
Biden warned that U.S. infrastructure is “ranked 13th in the world,” as if it were shameful to outscore about 90 percent of the 141 economies analyzed in 2019 by the World Economic Forum.
In fact, 13th place represents an upward shift of about 10 spots since the 2011-2012 WEF survey — and still underrates the United States.
Of the 12 economies the WEF ranked ahead of the United States in 2019, three — Singapore, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates — are tiny coastal city-states. It’s patently spurious to compare their infrastructure challenges with those of the United States.
Among the 10 geographically largest countries, including Canada, Australia, China and Russia, the United States places first, based on WEF criteria. The United States is also top among the 10 most populous countries.
Relative to other wealthy countries, the United States does still trail the Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan, Korea, Spain, Germany, France, Austria and the United Kingdom. However, it’s more realistic to treat the six continental European countries in this group as a unit, since goods and people move through them freely, via the borderless Schengen area. (The European Union members partly share infrastructure costs.) Coupled with deletion of the aforementioned micro-states, this adjustment puts the United States in the top five.
WEF ratings rest largely on a subjective survey in which business executives rate their countries’ roads, ports, and air and rail services on a scale of 1 to 7. This tilts against the United States because the rail-quality question does not distinguish between passenger (poor in the United States but excellent in Europe) and freight (a U.S. strength).
The American Society of Civil Engineers, a pro-construction lobby, issues quadrennial, and unflattering, “report cards” on U.S. infrastructure, frequently cited in support of the “crumbling” talking point. The ASCE’s 2021 report card gave the United States a C-.
But that was the best grade in 20 years. “Five category grades — aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports — went up, while just one category — bridges — went down” relative to ASCE’s 2017 report card, the organization acknowledged.
That lone downgrade (from C+ to C) occurred despite a decline in the share of highway bridges the U.S. government rates as “poor,” to just 7.5 percent, concentrated in lightly traveled rural areas. The ASCE complained, nevertheless, that “the rate of improvements has slowed,” while a small percentage of the nation’s bridges slipped from “good” to “fair.” (Both “good” and “fair” denote safe, usable structures.)
Talk about accentuating the negative! The impartial Congressional Research Service saw the cup half full in a May 2020 report, noting that “the number and share of bridges in poor condition have dropped significantly over the past 20 years,” and that “a relatively modest increase in spending” between now and 2040 could solve the problem.
As for interstate highways, a 2019 study by economists from the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University confirmed that “over the past generation, the condition of the interstate highway network improved consistently,” according to government data, even as “its extent increased modestly, and traffic about doubled.”
Obviously, all such assessments incorporate subjective judgments and debatable definitions. The big picture, though, is that the gigantic U.S. infrastructure is fundamentally sound — impressively, but not surprisingly, given that governments at all levels spent $370.5 billion on it in 2018, up from $284 billion in 2008, according to official data. Recent projects include the $8 billion modernization of New York’s LaGuardia Airport, a $4.4 billion bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, and a more than $2.4 billion overhaul of Central Florida’s I-4 highway.
To repeat: There’s no reason for complacency about U.S. infrastructure. Yet alarmist generalizations don’t help us identify the most pressing needs with the greatest potential economic benefits. They might pave the way to wasted resources and public disenchantment.