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News & Analysis

Uncle Sam on Crutches

Tahir Mustafa

At $21.433 trillion, the US has the largest GDP in the world. China is fast catching up. In some categories, it has even surpassed the US. The comparison, however, ends there.

China is building its infrastructure at breath-taking speed while roads and bridges as well as other infrastructure in the US are not only aged but literally crumbling. China has thousands of miles of track for bullet trains; the US has none and no bullet trains. Its trains use old tracks necessitating slowing down. US losses from highway gridlocks and slow-moving trains result in losses of some $160 billion each year.

Jimmy Carter, the former US president pointed out the difference with China lamenting America’s obsession with wars—227 years out of its existence of 244 years—and failing to invest in infrastructure.

In its report card released on March 3, 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) pointed out that “growing wear and tear on our nation’s roads have left 43% of our public roadways in poor or mediocre condition, a number that has remained stagnant over the past several years.” A quick glance at another area reveals an equally dismal picture.

“There is a water main break every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water [are] lost each day in the US, enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools,” according to the ASCE report. Given that much of the US infrastructure was built either in the 1930s or 1960s, most of it has outlived its lifespan. Apart from minor pothole repairs on roads and highways (called ‘Freeways’ in the US but users have to pay!), maintenance and repairs have lagged behind.

Compiled by Kevin Longley, the ASCE report card grades infrastructure from ‘A’ (top form) to ‘F’ (failing). The cumulative grade point average (GPA) in the 2021 report was ‘C-’, up from ‘D+’ in 2017, but this is hardly cause for celebration. “This is the first time since ASCE began issuing the report card that the nation’s infrastructure has received a GPA outside of the D range,” Longley wrote.

In the 17 categories assessed by ASCE, 11 received scores in the ‘D’ range: aviation, dams, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks, roads, schools, stormwater, transit, and wastewater. Further, between 2017 and 2021, five category grades increased (improved) while only one—bridges—decreased. There is, however, staggering maintenance backlog, especially in categories with lower grades.

The ASCE’s assessment for infrastructure repair/maintenance costs over the next 10 years total nearly $6 trillion. Taking committed funding into account, the gap is still $2.59 trillion. “If this is not addressed, America’s overdue infrastructure bill will cost each American household approximately $3,300 per year, or $63 per week,” according to Longley.

Another ASCE study revealed that, if left unrepaired, infrastructure inadequacies could cause the loss of $10 trillion in GDP and $23 trillion in lost business productivity over the next two decades.

During election campaign, candidate Joe Biden had promised that if elected, he would invest massively in infrastructure. On March 31, he unveiled a plan to invest some $2.3 trillion in tackling climate change, the decaying water systems and the country’s crumbling infrastructure. Dubbed the American Jobs Plan, Biden described it as a “transformative effort to overhaul America’s economy”.

He claimed it would put hundreds of thousands of electricians and laborers to work laying miles of electrical grid and capping hundreds of oil wells. He said the plan’s research funding would make America the global leader in emerging sectors such as battery technology, biotechnology and clean energy.

It has yet to be approved by Congress. Republicans have said they will oppose it. Pandering to the billionaire class, they are against the proposed tax increase from 21% to 28% for corporations. Further, the $2.3 trillion will be spread over 10 years and would be used in many areas. Roads, bridges and highways would get about $400 billion over a 10-year period. Add to that the cost to upgrade dams and levees and it would amount to $1 trillion. This is still far below what is needed to fix America’s crumbling infrastructure.

In his December 15, 2020 report on the state of US infrastructure, Prakas Karattukudy, senior project manager for transportation at EBA Engineering, Inc., rhetorically asked: “When it Comes to Infrastructure, is America Settling for a Failing Grade?” He drew comparison between Japan’s bullet train network, the Shinkansen that just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and American train networks. Japan’s “trains routinely operate at speeds of 150 to 200 miles per hour,” he wrote. Karattukudy also pointed out that ease of getting around has “implications for businesses and quality of life.”

To drive home the point about the state of disrepair, he looked at some major infrastructure categories.

“Roads. According to ASCE, more than 40 percent of every 5 miles of America’s urban interstates are congested, and in 2014, traffic delays cost the country $160 billion in wasted time and fuel. One out of every 5 miles of highway pavement is in poor condition, and our roads have a significant and increasing backlog of rehabilitation needs.

“Bridges. In 2016, 9.1 percent of the nation’s bridges were rated as structurally deficient. We have 614,387 bridges in our nation, 4 in 10 of which are 50 years or older. The life expectancy of bridges is 50 years, and they are over or approaching the end of their design life.

“Drinking water. Much of our drinking water infrastructure is also nearing the end of its useful life. An estimated 240,000 water main breaks occur every year in the United States… According to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the cost could reach more than $1 trillion to meet drinking water demands over the next 25 years.

“Electric grid. Although we cannot imagine life without electricity, one of the most outdated and overburdened parts of America’s infrastructure is the electrical grid. Whether preparing meals and refrigerating food; powering our hospitals and workplaces; or keeping the lights, air conditioning, and Internet access on, electricity literally powers every moment of our daily lives. Yet, some of the U.S. electric grids were built back in 1880s!

“In international rankings, the United States fell to 13th globally in quality of infrastructure according to the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Report.”

This is not a very impressive assessment of a claimant to superpower status. While Biden can spread red ink as far as the horizon, the rest of the world may not buy America’s debt any longer. Uncle Sam is on crutches but he refuses to improve his manners.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 3

Ramadan 19, 14422021-05-01

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