It’ll cost ya

Every once in a long while, users might have a pleasant experience with America’s infrastructure, but by and large we Americans take for granted that our daily interactions with public works will be miserable. Perhaps we need a sharp reminder (from John Gapper, writing in the FT) that subpar infrastructure impacts our economic well-being by forcing us to forego productivity:

The gulf in public and private infrastructure is, to put it mildly, alarming for US competitiveness… At times I wonder whether the world’s biggest economy has the will to solve its challenges or will end up wandering self-indulgently into the minor economic leagues. I expect it will get serious when the crisis is too blatant to ignore, but it has not done so yet…

There are lots of ways in which infrastructure inadequacy matters to the US but I would focus on two.

First, it imposes a drag on economic growth. The private infrastructure is poor enough – broadband speeds lag behind other countries and mobile coverage is spotty. But much of the public infrastructure is unfit, a fact that was becoming clear even before Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and a Minneapolis bridge collapsed during rush hour last year.

Second, it presents an awful image of the US to investors and other visitors. The state of transport and communications infrastructure is a symbol of a nation’s economic development and the US is starting to look like a third world country. In fact, scratch that. Many developing countries look and feel better.

Of course, they are in a different phase of development. The US invested 10 per cent of its federal non-military budget in infrastructure in the 1950s and 1960s as it built the interstate highway system – at the time, the envy of the world. While US investment has fallen to less than 1 per cent of gross domestic product, China has been matching its double-digit postwar record.

The bigger problem is that, unlike European countries including the UK, the US shows little sign of finding the will or the funding mechanisms to maintain what it has or to build anew.

As the recent failure of congestion pricing in NYC demonstrates, we Americans would rather pay with our time than pay with our dollars.