My dash from the curb to my gate in the Central Terminal of La Guardia early yesterday was a relative doddle. Because quarters are so tight I could reach to buy papers from the news stand without losing my place in the security queue and the floors were mercifully free of the buckets that come out whenever it rains. Actually they usually use those grey trays that take your carry-ons through the X-ray scanners. They catch more drips.
I’ll be using La Guardia a lot more, it seems, because my other “preferred” airport is Newark in New Jersey. One of the bridges you take to get there – a span of steel called the Pulaski Skyway that you might know from the opening credits of The Sopranos – is seemingly on the verge of collapse so they are closing it for two years for urgent reconstructive surgery. At least you can reach Newark by train, which is not the case for La Guardia.
If you know the US at all, the general dilapidation of its infrastructure will be familiar to you. The roads throughout New York seem like they’ve been shelled with potholes big enough to swallow a stretch Smart Car. The subway system is an assault course, even for the able-bodied. I marvel at all those escalators in the London Tube. As for Penn Station under Madison Square Garden, it’s where the rat and human populations of the city become one.
America likes to think of itself as the most advanced, comfortable, technologically developed country in the world. Yet it’s a myth dating from the post-Second World War years when every home had a giant refrigerator and Neil Armstrong was soon bound for the Moon. I love the place, but in all the years I’ve lived here I have never stopped noticing how myth and reality diverge. You notice because of expectations. Isn’t the United States meant to do better than this?
The disappointment also extends to communications. A new global livability survey, the Social Progress Index, puts the USA at 16th place, just beneath Ireland. The US is 34th in access to water and sanitation and 23rd in enjoyment of cellphones and the internet on account of the fact that one American in five still has no access to the internet. This, as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times points out, is odd in the country that is home to Silicon Valley.
Meanwhile, in March the London-based Skytrax rubbed salt in the aviation wound with its latest top-100 list of world’s best airports. Poor old Uncle Sam is entirely absent until you reach Cincinnati, Ohio, at No 27. It used to be a hub for Delta Airlines but not so much any more, which is perhaps why it’s almost acceptable.
You have to love Vice President Joe Biden for saying precisely what you’ve been thinking for years (there is a reason some folk think he’d be a fine replacement for David Letterman who said last week he’ll quit his late-night chat show on CBS after over 20 years). To travel from La Guardia, he said, was like braving the Third World.
“If I blindfolded someone and took them at two in the morning into the airport in Hong Kong and said, ‘Where do you think you are?’ they’d say, ‘This must be America, it’s a modern airport,’” Biden told an audience in Philadelphia last month. “But if I blindfolded you and took you to La Guardia Airport in New York, you would think, ‘I must be in some third world country’.” The audience roared, and Biden responded: “I’m not joking.”
Indeed he was not. Mr Biden’s speech had a purpose. He and President Barack Obama are trying to persuade Congress to approve a sweeping programme of infrastructure spending across the United States. Their idea in part is that it would generate huge numbers of much-needed new jobs. But it’s also about closing that gap between what America is supposed to be as a country and what it actually is. And keeping it competitive with the rest of the world.
“Other countries are not w daiting to rebuild their infrastructure. They’re trying to out-build us today so they can out-compete us tomorrow,” said Mr Obama on a recent visit to Minneapolis, where an entire bridge fell into the river in 2007, killing 13 (the Pulaski in New Jersey is the same design).
“They know that if they have the fastest trains on the planet or the highest-rated airports or the busiest, most efficient ports, that businesses will go there. We want them to come here.”
The country, he said, was facing an “infrastructure crisis”. He is asking Congress to commit $300bn (£179bn) to repair the country’s transport network and create an infrastructure bank to help the cash go further.
There are scattered plans to plug some of the worst holes, including an ambitious rebuilding of La Guardia’s benighted Central Terminal, at last, and new money for JFK and Newark as well as New Orleans airport, the first facilities that many foreign visitors see when they arrive in America. But with the tax-cutting Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives there is almost no chance of Mr Obama’s wider rebuilding programme being approved.
America the Beautiful may thus be doomed to look more and more like America the Dilapidated.