The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s how U.S. infrastructure compares to the rest of the world

The White House often cites the nation’s No. 13 ranking. Overall, the United States ranks second but falls behind when it comes to transportation and utility infrastructure.

A Port Authority Transit Corporation train travels across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia last week. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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The White House has framed investments in infrastructure as a matter of ensuring the nation’s global competitiveness, highlighting in its $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan how the nation’s economy is the world’s largest — and yet its infrastructure ranks No. 13.

Addressing Congress this week, President Biden said the nation has to “compete more strenuously than we have.”

“We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century,” Biden said. “We’re at a great inflection point in history.”

How does America’s infrastructure compare to that of other countries?

The ranking often cited by the White House comes from a 2019 report by the World Economic Forum, a Swiss nonprofit, that sought to compare the competitiveness of 141 countries’ economies, assigning scores based on measures of a dozen factors such as quality of government institutions, labor markets, health care and infrastructure.

Overall, the United States ranked second behind Singapore, but it falls somewhat behind when it comes to transportation and utility infrastructure.

On transportation, the forum’s score takes into account eight measures, rating the United States No. 12 globally. Half the measures are designed to be objective and half are based on a survey of business leaders. The United States was tops on two scores: Road and airport connectivity, which measure how readily people can get between different parts of a country.

But the United States falls behind on the railroad score: The forum measured the number of miles of railroad track per square mile in each nation, rating the country at No. 48.

The nation’s population is much more spread out than in many other rich nations, like those in Europe, and Roberto Crotti, one of the lead authors of the report, said any measure is going to have drawbacks when trying to compare disparate economies.

But Crotti said European leaders have invested far more in their rail networks than the United States, seeing them as a way to provide low-emission travel over medium distances. Biden’s plan calls for a massive expansion of federal support for rail, proposing an investment of $80 billion.

The forum’s scores don’t take into account some factors that Biden’s plan is designed to address, such as transit service or safety.

For water and electricity utility infrastructure, the United States ranks No. 23 in the forum’s scores. But almost every rich nation achieved close to the maximum number of points, and Crotti said the measures — which include access to safe drinking water and the reliability of the electric grid — are more relevant to developing countries.

While the United States ranks alongside rich European and Asian nations, the forum has been producing the report since the 1970s, and Crotti said the country’s infrastructure scores have slipped somewhat in recent years. He said there are “signs that the quality has not kept up with the expectations of the business community.”

“Looking at what the facts say and what we are able to observe in terms of trends, it makes sense to use this number to say the U.S. is not as good as it used to be,” Crotti said. “That is backed by facts.”

In future editions of the report, Crotti said the United States could come off looking worse as the forum incorporates measures of environmental sustainability. In a separate study, some of Crotti’s colleagues ranked the nation No. 24 when it comes to the transition to renewable energy — another major focus of the Biden plan.

But what about China, the nation the Biden administration has singled out as America’s most important global competitor? The forum ranked its infrastructure at No. 36, behind Malaysia and above Greece. (Hong Kong ranks third.)

China is investing heavily in efforts to catch up, spending about 5.6 percent of its gross domestic product on transportation infrastructure investments in 2018, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a France-based intergovernmental economic group.

In the United States, the equivalent figure was just half a percent, below many other developed nations. But because the American economy is so large, in dollar terms, the country’s spending is among the highest, especially when it comes to roads.

Such comparisons can also be tricky. The United States is a developed economy with built-out infrastructure, while China is growing rapidly but is still much poorer.

“Even ignoring governance issues and how projects are selected, it’s a mature industrial economy vs. an industrializing economy,” Marc Scribner, a transportation analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, said in a Twitter message. “China is greenfield-focused while the U.S.'s major needs are mostly rehabilitating/reconstructing existing aging infrastructure.”