COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS
Written by Steven J. Markovich, Contributing Editor
Infrastructure is critical to economic growth, but the aging U.S. transportation system suffers from insufficient investment. As this CFR Progress Report and Scorecard, Road to Nowhere, explains, other nations are building new highways as the United States’ crumble. U.S. transportation fell from fifth in the World Economic Forum’s rankings in 2002 to twenty-fourth in 2011, passed by nations such as Spain, South Korea, and Oman. Making a U-turn will take some time since major infrastructure projects require several years to plan and execute.
The decline can be attributed to a general trend of under-investment in infrastructure; the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has only awarded overall grades of D or D+ to U.S. infrastructure in all five report cards issued from 1998 to 2013. Current infrastructure requires more investment—for instance, one in nine U.S. bridges are structurally deficient—while new projects are needed to address issues such as road congestion, which costs American drivers $101 billion annually in wasted time and fuel, and airport delays that are a $22 billion drag on the economy.
While experts have been warning about crumbling infrastructure for more than a decade, the federal government has not addressed underinvestment. The Obama administration has attempted to prioritize transportation infrastructure by making it the second largest component of the 2009 Recovery Act, and proposing the GROW AMERICA Act to provide four years of comprehensive funding to modernize highways, railways, and mass transit. But the former was a temporary measure and the latter is unlikely to gain traction in Congress. Aside from the Recovery Act and a two-year reauthorization plan passed in 2012, Congress has only passed short-term reauthorizations to keep the Highway Trust Fund afloat.
Investing for Tomorrow
U.S. transportation infrastructure requires substantial capital investment because many of the highways and bridges built decades earlier are now reaching the end of their expected lifespan. For the last few decades, the nation has benefited from investments from the Eisenhower era through the 1980s. From the 1980s onward, transportation infrastructure spending as a share of U.S. GDP stagnated.
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