The United States economy, valued at approximately $20 trillion, is highly dependent on a vast network of transportation infrastructure, including bridges, roads, rail lines, and ports. The network moves raw materials, goods, and people from place to place. It’s the engine that’s made the U.S. economy hum for more than a hundred years.
The current system and the elements that make it up were built decades ago and have not been properly maintained or updated. Economists believe that this is holding the U.S. economy back, especially when compared against nations with new and modern infrastructure, like China. The risk of elements within the network failing also puts economic security in peril. A single bridge collapse can cost millions of dollars in lost business and delays, not to mention the loss of human life and serious injuries.
This is why the current infrastructure plan moving its way through Congress is so critical. Experts believe that the large-scale spend could more than pay off by making the U.S. more competitive globally. The plan would have a far bigger impact than the private sector-based initiatives that have been considered in the past.
So, how important is a solid, modern infrastructure system to the United States and its economy?
You have to go back in history to find out.
The rise and fall of U.S. bridges and other infrastructure.
Most economists believe that the nation’s large investment in infrastructure in the 20th century, especially in its early decades (bridges and railroads) and after World War II (highways and airports), laid the foundation for the nation’s strong economic growth after the war. It was one of the key factors that turned the U.S. into a global economic superpower. Similarly, U.S. infrastructure spending in Europe as part of the post-World War II Marshall Plan also helped make certain countries, such as France and Germany, more competitive than they otherwise would have been.
If this is true, then it’s only logical that the opposite is also true. If a country that improves its infrastructure becomes more competitive, one that lets it become antiquated will become less so. If raw materials and goods cannot be moved efficiently and dependably from place to place and people can’t get to businesses quickly and easily, the flow of cash through the economy slows down, which will have a negative impact on the gross domestic product (GDP) of the nation.
Many experts believe that investing in new infrastructure and being more diligent about maintaining current infrastructure would significantly stimulate the economy. Increasing efficiency and reliability and lowering transportation costs would improve the competitiveness of the United States over the long term. It could help insulate the economy from shocks, while creating jobs for years to come.
Investing in infrastructure doesn’t just pay off once, dollar for dollar. Economists generally view infrastructure spending as having a multiplier effect, meaning that the economic payoff is many times greater than the amount spent. A study released by the Business Roundtable makes the case that every dollar spent on infrastructure pays off with a three-dollar increase in the gross domestic product.
The current stressors on U.S. infrastructure.
Many of the bridges and roads and other elements of transportation infrastructure in the United States were built in the 1960s. Infrastructure at the time was typically developed with an expected lifespan of 50 years. That currently puts much of it at the end of — or past — its useful life. A lack of maintenance spending by the government has left many major roads and bridges in precarious condition. Tunnels, airports, and ports are in equally bad shape.
Another issue is that the U.S. population has more than doubled since the 1960s. That has left many bridges, roads, airports, and other transportation infrastructure seriously overtaxed. It also doesn’t take into account the dramatic increase in use because of the expansion of our consumer culture and the introduction of home delivery services, including Amazon, UPS, and Uber Eats.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently released its 2021 report card on all types of infrastructure across the U.S. The group gave it a mediocre grade of C minus. (Bridges received a slightly better C grade.) The ASCE estimates that unless Congress approves a major spend, there will be an infrastructure investment gap of almost $2.6 trillion this decade. The gap is the difference between current anticipated spending and the amount that it would take to make our infrastructure adequate to meet today’s needs. The ASCE also projects that the spending shortfall could cost the United States $10 trillion dollars in lost GDP by 2039.
Other organizations also believe that the infrastructure spending shortfall is massive. Back in 2017, McKinsey reported that it would take at least $150 billion of additional spending per year through the end of the current decade to make things whole.
Transportation-related infrastructure requires the greatest amount of funding. The U.S. Government Accountability Office finds that almost one out of four bridges is deficient and 17% are functionally obsolete. Airports, ports, and tunnels are also in comparably poor condition. One example is that over the last year, even with air travel limited due to the pandemic, almost one out of five flights into U.S. airports was delayed or canceled, according to the United States Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The situation is similar for the nation’s ports.
How does U.S. transportation infrastructure compare with other countries around the world?
While infrastructure in the United States is better than that in most countries around the globe, it has fallen significantly behind most of the leading world economic powers. According to the 2019 Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranks 13th in the world when it comes to the quality of its infrastructure. That’s down from fifth place in 2002, which puts it behind France, Germany, Japan, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. Due to this, the United States, once the world’s leading economic superpower, is struggling to keep up with these countries.
Certain transportation areas where the U.S. is particularly bad compared to global peers include U.S. trains, which travel, on average, at just half the speed of Europe’s high-speed rails. Aviation industry rankings included in a Business Roundtable report put only four U.S. airports in the top 50 worldwide. The best airport in the United States was ranked at number 30 in the world.
The big difference in infrastructure quality between the United States and its peers can be traced to a single factor: funding. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development , a group made up mostly of developed countries, the United States invests less in transportation infrastructure as a percentage of its GDP than many other advanced nations, including France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. (The total amount of spend in the U.S. is greater, but the percentage of GDP is far less.) China, which is striving to overtake the U.S. as a global powerhouse, spends much more. Many experts cite China’s road development program as a key contributing factor to its increase in economic influence in Asia. The new roads make it easier for China to produce goods and distribute them to neighboring nations.
The bottom line.
The U.S. decline in bridge and other infrastructure is expected to continue and accelerate unless Congress takes action and funds infrastructure in a way that is more similar to Australia, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. They have upped their funding and put in place national infrastructure frameworks that enable their central governments to have greater control over bridge and other infrastructure maintenance and development.
Unless that happens in the United States, infrastructure across the country will continue its precipitous decline, its economy will suffer, and other nations will take its place as an economic leader. That’s the real cost of not funding infrastructure.