America is falling behind. I do not mean only that we are losing ground against Europe and Japan. I mean that we are falling behind with respect to our own capacities. We are not the country we once were, or the country we could be.
I do not need to document this sorry assertion. I want to write about what I think we can do to catch up. For we now have a unique chance to become the country we could be if we lived up to our possibilities. It lies within our grasp to overcome the single most difficult obstacle we face in trying to recover our momentum. That obstacle is the inadequacy of our infrastructure, the public underpinnings without which a society cannot be healthy or an economy prosperous.
Infrastructure is the public capital of a nation—the network of roads and water mains, harbors and air navigation systems, public health research facilities and public waste disposal facilities, on which we all depend for much of the quality of our individual lives. We also depend on it for much of our collective efficiency. Just as a train cannot exceed the limits of its roadbed, an economy cannot exceed those of its infrastructure.
American infrastructure is in a state of near collapse. For nearly twenty-five years we have virtually ceased to improve our public capital. Following World War II, we set out to build up interstate highways, airports, research and development laboratories and the like, until by 1952 spending on infrastructure absorbed 6.9 percent of the nonmilitary federal budget. Irregularly, but with increasing momentum, this share has been declining ever since. During the 1970s it plummeted to an average of 1.5 percent During the 1980s the share dropped still further to 1.2 percent. Thus a smaller and smaller fraction of government spending has gone into reinforcing or extending the public foundation of the economy. To drive across the Queensboro Bridge in New York is to know at first hand the meaning of allowing our infrastructure to decay.
Where there is longstanding current neglect, catch-up costs become large. The United States Department of Transportation tells us that it will now take $50 billion to repair the nation’s 240,000 bridges. To bring our highways up to their condition in 1983 will take ten years and $315 billion in current dollars. Air traffic control is in desperate need of funds for expansion and modernization—at least $25 billion by the year 2000. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it will cost $20 billion to rehabilitate the nation’s stock of public housing, and rehabilitation does not mean adding to the current, shamefully inadequate stock. There is no official tally of the total expenditures needed to repair and maintain the infrastructure over the next ten years. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the amount at about $60 billion per year. The Association of Public Contractors puts it at $118 billion per year. The nation’s contractors are hardly a disinterested source, but in this…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.