"Life in the Slow Lane" is the headline of a piece in The Economist that provides a very interesting analysis of the lack of infrastructure spending in the United States.
Because the story is in The Economist, it comes at the topic from a European perspective. No doubt this will trouble conservatives because, well … I'm not sure why conservatives fear comparisons with other prosperous, industrialized, democratic societies. Anyway, I think the story is worth reading.
The Economist looks primarily at transportation systems and makes the point that the U.S. is not only failing to build needed capacity, the country for decades has not adequately maintained the roads, railways and air transport systems it has. I don't see how there could be any argument on this point. Has a single study in the last 20 years concluded that we're doing a good job with transportation infrastructure?
I think a similar point could be made about other critical systems – water, wastewater, schools, flood control. We continue to make due with a surprising amount of physical structures built during the Depression and the post-war era.
Yet all we hear these days is that we can't afford new roads, levees and water lines, and we defer maintenance at every opportunity. The next federal transportation bill will likely be smaller than the previous one, which itself was inadequate. (Some commentators are already calling it dead on arrival.) Environmental Protection Agency programs that pay for clean water projects appear likely to suffer major budget reductions.
In Sacramento, hardly anyone is even talking about this stuff – even though California's roadways are the most congested and in just about the poorest condition; even though some communities in the Central Valley lack safe drinking water; even though we know that, sooner rather than later, a flood is going to wallop the Delta and put the two largest water delivery systems out of commission for an extended period.
None of this stuff is new. The Economist says the U.S. can't figure out, or doesn't want to figure out, how to pay for basic transportation infrastructure. The bottom line is that we are unwilling to pay for the literal building blocks of the country.
Why? Why can't we find agreement on something so obvious? We wring our hands and pound podiums about burdening our children and grandchildren with budgetary debt at the same time we ignore the infrastructure deficit – and its severe consequences – that we're forcing on those same generations.
The Economist story concludes that, without substantial infrastructure investment, the American economy will grind to a halt. I think the grinding has already begun. Sorry, kids.
– Paul Shigley