The rumors of US infrastructure's demise are greatly exaggerated
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In a rare consensus, the Trump administration and congressional Democrats agree that we need a trillion dollars to address America’s “crumbling” infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card calls for trillions of dollars of investment to fix our failing infrastructure.

The 15,000 transportation lobbyists in Washington, D.C. routinely contribute huge amounts to politicians on both sides of the aisle. Opponents of infrastructure spending are decried as wanting to poison grandma with polluted water and send school buses over the guardrails of decaying roads.

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The doomsday warnings about our D-grade infrastructure belie evidence that the U.S. ranks relatively high for its infrastructure. The latest tally of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitive Index ranks U.S. infrastructure in eleventh place, ahead of Canada, Austria, Australia, and Scandinavia.

 

In its New Global Index of Infrastructure, the Kiel Institute for the World Economy ranks the U.S. fourth behind Hong Kong, Singapore, and Germany. Among nation states, therefore, the United States comes in at number two just behind Germany.

Nor is there evidence that the U.S. spends too little on infrastructure. According to OECD statistics, the United States spent 3.2 percent of its GDP (2001-2011) on public investment versus the European Union’s 3.0 percent. With roughly equal GDPs, the United States actually outspent the European Union — the model of infrastructure that our politicians frequently praise.

The American Society of Civil Engineers have decided that the United States must spend $3.4 trillion between now and 2030 to correct our infrastructure deficit. The largest infrastructure spending gap, according to the ASCE, is on roads, which accounts for over three quarters of the $1.4 trillion infrastructure spending gap.

Therefore, our infrastructure crisis is a crisis of our roads. According to the ASCE report: “As of 2015, estimated deficiencies in America’s surface transportation systems cost households and businesses nearly $147 billion. This included approximately $109 billion in vehicle operating costs, $36 billion in travel time delays, $1.4 billion in safety costs and $0.7 billion in environmental costs. 

The ASCE assigns U.S. roads a D grade, one quarter of which is due to congestion. Do we deserve a grade that is marginally above failing? The navigation and mapping company TomTom calculates a Global Traffic Congestion Index compiled from a mountain of GPS data. In the TomTom Traffic Index, congestion levels are measured as a percentage of the additional travel time compared to normal traffic (or Free Flow situation).

According to TomTom’s global GPS data, the U.S. road system is among the least congested in the world. Of the 21 countries counted, the U.S. ranks fourth in terms of lack of congestion. Of the most congested cities, only Los Angeles makes the list.

Even a casual look at international data tells us that U.S. infrastructure is among the best in the world — somewhere between number four and 11. Our congestion crisis, judged on an international scale, is nonexistent. The U.S. has among the world’s most uncongested roads.

If we apply the ASCE ranking to other countries, virtually all of them are failing. At least, according to them, we have a marginally passing grade.

 

Note: This op-ed previously made an incorrect reference to a research report from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI). The op-ed stated that MGI's "Bridging Global Infrastructure Gaps" reported the U.S. possessed a 30-percent surplus between the current rate of infrastructure spending and its spending needs between now and 2030. In fact, the report states that there is a 0.7-percent deficit. That reference has been removed.

 

Paul Gregory is a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He holds an endowed professorship in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston.


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