Trump’s $1 trillion challenge: how to rebuild the crumbling land of the free
US infrastructure is blighted by disasters and woeful investment, finds David Millward
Compared with the devastation that befell Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas, the winter storm that battered New England last month was pretty small beer, even if one gust in Massachusetts did reach 93mph. Nevertheless it left 1.3m people without power, the most since Hurricane Sandy five years ago. Maine took a particularly severe pummelling with 400,000 people cut off – equivalent to a third of the population.
Events of the past few months have provided a stark reminder of the severity of the US climate and the havoc it can wreak, whether it is hurricanes in the south, storms – and later blizzards – in the north or wildfires in the west.
Recovery often seems painfully slow, raising a fundamental question about the state of American infrastructure. Certainly, it appears to be struggling badly when it comes to coping with what nature throws at it on a regular basis. According to the US Government Accountability Office, the damage caused by extreme weather has cost the federal government $350bn (£267bn) over the past decade.
In its latest report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the US infrastructure a withering D+ and estimates it will cost
$4.59 trillion to bring it up to standard, nearly four times more than in 2001.
While there has been something of an improvement in rail, in many other sectors, from aviation to tackling hazardous waste, the situation has got worse. “I think we have fallen behind,” says the society’s Brian Pallasch. “I think we have taken a generational vacation from investing in our professor of cultural anthropology at Mcgill University in Montreal.
“In Europe the power system is centralised, in the US it has a history of being patched together. It is a hotchpotch and old. We had the same storms in Quebec and we were fine, while the power was out in Vermont.
“If anything, infrastructure in Europe is overbuilt and excessive because of a need for redundancy, while in the US it is underbuilt.”
Part of the problem is that the US puts its power lines on poles rather than burying them underground. It just takes a decent gust of wind to bring a tree down on top of a cable and those living nearby lose electricity.
Of course, burying power lines would be costly. There is some dispute over how much extra it would cost.
A British study suggested that underground lines are five times more expensive than those overhead. A US estimate puts the premium considerably higher.
North Carolina looked at moving power lines underground and concluded it would cost $41bn and take about 25 years to carry out. It concluded that the cost was “prohibitively expensive”.
But America’s infrastructure problems go far wider than an unreliable electricity supply.
The internet can be patchy.
‘American infrastructure is crumbling to Third World status. We run risk of being akin to a banana republic’
‘I think we have taken a generational vacation from investing in our country’s infrastructure’
According to the Federal Communications Commission, 39pc of rural Americans still lack access to high-speed internet. On tribal lands, that figure rises to 41pc.
There is mounting concern over the state of America’s water supply with the 1.2m miles of lead pipes across the country reaching close to the end of their useful life.
The road network is hardly in great condition. Not only is the highway network inadequate for coping with the volume of traffic, but many are ridden with potholes. It is also estimated that 70,000 bridges – one in nine – are structurally deficient.
While Europe boasts a sleek railway system, the network in the USA is piecemeal and in many places pitifully slow, despite some improvements over the past decade or so.
Public transport in many cities is poor, notably in New York where the commuters, especially those coming in from the suburbs, regard delays as a way of life. There are occasional shafts of light. The twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul invested in light rail. The 11-mile Green Line cost a billion dollars but the transformation has been staggering.
Los Angeles and Denver have also reaped the benefit of investment in local transport. But while cities are prepared to invest, there seems to be greater reluctance when it comes to the federal government.
The consensus among experts is that the US has fallen behind many of its competitors.
“It is a problem of several trillion dollars that is needed just to do the repairs to bring US infrastructure up to world standards,” says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Arbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School and author of Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead.
“It is manifested in just about every industry. Much of our infrastructure, especially in the north east, dates back to the 19th century.
“We have technology developed in the US, which is capable of addressing the problems. We have the potential to reduce traffic congestion with autonomous vehicles and self-driving cars. There is the opportunity to embed sensors into our roads to identify where repairs are needed.
“We are not yet storm proof and part of the problem is whether or not we acknowledge climate change.”
Oliver Mcgee, who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House science office, has a pretty stark view.
“American infrastructure is crumbling to Third World status. If we don’t improve it, we run the risk of being akin to a banana republic.”
Donald Trump’s administration has pledged to act, promising to spend $1 trillion to rebuild the country’s roads, tunnels and bridges. But given the size of the US national debt – and the promised tax cuts – where the money is coming from is a moot point, especially with the president backing off suggestions that the private sector will help pick up the bill. Poor infrastructure is holding America back, says James Mccann, an economist with Aberdeen Standard Investments.
“There has been a long-term lack of investment,” he says. “If you look at potential growth it has been slowing down hand in hand with the country’s worsening infrastructure.
“Instead of America being the world’s richest country because of its infrastructure, it is the world’s richest despite its infrastructure.”