Our Views: World views our neglect

It’s one thing when we at home can notice the bumpy state of our roads, or the shabbiness in many American airports or railway stations. But it’s another thing entirely when the world takes note of America falling behind in infrastructure.

Compiled by the World Economic Forum, an annual report on “global competitiveness” reported recently that the United States has fallen behind many members of the European Union, Canada and Asian countries in the overall quality of its infrastructure.

William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution summarized the findings: “We rank 18th in railroads, 19th in ports, 20th in roads, 30th in airports, and 33rd in the quality of our electrical system.”

The report from the global business leadership that takes part in the World Economic Forum is only one in a number of serious looks at deficiencies in infrastructure in this country.

In Louisiana, civil engineers estimated as much as $14 billion in needed road and bridge construction alone. That “report card” from the Louisiana chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers had reasonably good grades on waterways and levees — because of more-extensive federal spending on the latter since 2005 — but roads and other infrastructure categories were seriously deficient.

In Louisiana, the ASCE report card suggested that repairs on cars caused by our inadequate roads cost each owner about $400 a year. That alone adds up to millions in the state. Nationally, the drag on growth is represented by waste, such as being stuck in traffic. One study reckoned the national loss from that one source alone as $101 billion.

“These numbers would appear large enough to arrest the attention of even the most-jaded policymakers,” Galston commented. “This has not happened. Instead, current fiscal trends and policies portend a long-term squeeze on domestic discretionary spending — the pool of funds from which federal infrastructure investment is drawn. Innovative plans for federal government partnerships with the private sector to leverage scarce public resources have not gone forward in some instances and have fallen well short of adequate scope in others.”

While states and localities have raised taxes for some projects, the overall outlook is not good. Roads and track and tunnels and ports do not build or maintain themselves.

History shows that infrastructure investments, from the canals of the early 19th Century and the railroads of the late 19th century, and then the Interstate highways of the 20th century, pay off in cold financial terms.

Also, as with road repairs and costs for alignments or broken struts, the costs of infrastructure neglect are hidden. One example is drinking water: While Louisiana is awash in water compared to a state like Arizona, the fact is that water still costs something. If some amount of drinking water seeps out of a dilapidated water system, the costs are there, and continue, drip by drip, year by year.

Add to that the embarrassment when Chinese visitors fly into American airports that look worse than those they left, and board subways that are older and poorly maintained compared to those in Asia.

Infrastructure improvements are costly, and in the United States cannot be directed from on high by an all-powerful government. Here, an expression of the popular will is necessary to pay for the infrastructure that will benefit future generations, just as President Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highways benefited later generations of users.

“It remains to be seen whether today’s Americans will muster the will and resources to do as well for their posterity,” Galston said.

He’s right. And the entire world is starting to notice.