Our Infrastructure Crisis

Building America’s Future, a bipartisan group dedicated to infrastructure development, recently released a devastating report highlighting our failure to invest in our future by keeping our transportation infrastructure up to date.  I highly encourage you to read the entire document, but I wanted to highlight some of the key takeaways.

1.  Our transportation infrastructure is already overwhelmed, out-of-date, and losing ground to the rest of the world

The explosion of globalization has dramatically impacted our transportation infrastructure.  Our entire system — roads, rail, ports, airports — are working beyond their capacity and are over-congested.  Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate.

Congestion takes $200 billion out of our economy every year — that’s 1.6% of GDP.  Road congestion alone eats up 3.9 billion gallons of gasoline and 4.8 billion hours of lost time.    It’s common for freight trains entering or departing Chicago to spend more time waiting to be loaded/unloaded than in transit, even on trips to or from the West Coast.

Our air traffic control system is reliant on ground-based radar, instead of satellite monitoring.  Fully 37% of late arrivals can be attributed to by inefficiencies created by this system.  The impacts of this are felt most acutely in the New York metropolitan area, where the three airports suffer crippling rates of late arrivals.  For instance, in Newark, nearly one-third of all flights are delayed and the average late arrival is 73 minutes late.  Over half of all delays in New York’s airports can be blamed on the outdated air traffic control system.

When it comes to passenger rail, we are terribly behind other countries.  We have 0 miles of high-speed rail, defined as routes able to maintain an average of at least 155 miles per hour. (The Acela line in the Northeast has a top speed in that range, but only averages about 70 m.p.h.)  China, meanwhile, has 6,649 miles of high-speed rail with plans to nearly double that by the end of the decade.  Even developing countries are growing their systems — Saudi Arabia is constructing its first high-speed rail line, as are Brazil, Morocco, and Qatar.

Spain has nearly 2,400 miles of high-speed rail with plans to expand it to 6,200 miles by 2020.   Before the high-speed rail line between the two cities opened in 2008, Madrid to Barcelona was the most heavily traveled air route in Europe.  Today, a majority of that traffic has shifted to the train, which delivers a comparable travel time end-to-end (including security, baggage claim, etc.)

The port in Shanghai, China handles as much freight as the top seven U.S. ports combined.  Other countries are making investment in their facilities and surpassing us.  For instance, Canada has invested dramatically in its Prince Rupert facility north of Vancouver, linking it directly to a main CN rail line.  Port traffic to this facility has spiked since its expansion in 2007, while California ports have seen slow to no growth due to their congestion.

2.  The demands on our infrastructure are going to grow significantly in the coming years

Globalization isn’t going to stop — it’s only going to increase.  And all projections show that the demands on our infrastructure are going to go along with it.  Port volume at our largest facilities is expected to double by 2020.  Rail freight tonnage is expected to increase 88% by 2035.  And passenger miles drive are expected to increase 80% over the next 30 years.  Commercial air traffic is projected to be up 36% from 2006 levels in 2015.

3.  These issues have real impacts on our families

Most people don’t realize that transportation is the second-largest expense category for families in the United States, behind housing.  The average family spends nearly 18% of their income on transportation — more than food or health care.  Just like health care, though, Americans spend more on transportation than other countries.  Canadians spend 14% of their income on transportation, European Union citizens spend 13% of their income on transportation, and Japanese citizens spend 12.5% of their income on transportation.

The congestion in our transportation system adds costs in other ways, as well.  The lost time (4.8 billion hours a year) is significant.  Anyone who’s traveled for business knows how much productive time is lost at airports, with arrivals 90 minutes in advance of departure, extensive security retrofit into buildings not designed for such activity and often questionable places to plug in and get some work done.

Also, consider the expense that is added to the price of what you buy in your local store when the delivery truck is idling in traffic or the freight train is stuck at the depot in Chicago, or the cargo plane is forced to circle for an hour before landing.

These issues are more acute for low-income families, who spend up to 40% of their income on transportation.  Budget issues at the federal, state, and local levels have inhibited infrastructure construction and limited mass transit options for those in metropolitan areas.  We’ve seen that here in Minnesota, where our roads conditions have declined precipitously (from 8th in the country to 29th since 2002) and transit users have seen escalating bus fares.

What do we do?  The report has some good ideas, and I’ll share those and some of my own in an upcoming post.


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