Rupert Cornwell: Crumbling America has a $2.2 trillion repair bill

Out of America: The US needs to update its roads, railways and airports – but recession and a shift to the right have put big infrastructure projects in jeopardy.

Related Topics

First, a tale of two rail tunnels. One of them is in Switzerland – the 35-mile Gotthard Base tunnel, the cutting of which was completed on Friday amid great national rejoicing, and which, when it opens for business in 2017, will be the longest of its kind in the world. It will have cost $10bn (£6.2bn), representing $1,300 of taxpayer's money for every citizen in the land of William Tell. But it will bestow huge benefits not only on Switzerland, but on north-south freight and passenger traffic for all Europe.

The other rail tunnel is (or rather was) in New Jersey, and would have linked the Garden State to Manhattan, vastly improving clogged access to New York City, with long-term economic benefits to match. The project, 20 years in the planning, would have cost around $9bn, or roughly $1,000 for each inhabitant of one of the richest states in the US.

Alas, it is not to be. A few days ago, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey announced his state was pulling out, in effect dooming the tunnel even though digging has started and $500m has already been spent. The cost was simply too high, he declared; in these cash-strapped times, New Jersey had better things to spend its money on. And so you start to understand the silent crisis that is undermining America: the creeping decay of its public infrastructure.

It's happening everywhere, from potholed interstate highways and grimy railways, to congested airports and a creaking air traffic control system that only adds to the increasingly third world experience of flying in the US. And hold your breath when you cross an American bridge: a 2005 study found that fully a quarter of them were structurally inadequate or obsolete.

Every now and then, the defects explode into the national consciousness – when breaches in scandalously neglected levees led to the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, or when the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed one sunny rush hour afternoon in August 2007, sending 13 people to their deaths as their cars plunged into the Mississippi river.

Another reminder is when friends return from foreign trips marvelling at the high-speed rail networks in Europe, Japan and China, or at other man-made wonders such as the Millau Viaduct in southern France. Why, they ask, can't we have this sort of thing?

To be fair, they can and do. Yesterday saw the opening of the stunning new bridge 890ft above the gorge of the Colorado river, linking Arizona with Nevada and bypassing the congested old road across the top of the Hoover Dam – that earlier Depression-era miracle of infrastructure building, dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935.

The new bridge took five years to complete and is said to have the longest single-span concrete arch in the Western hemisphere. As other great achievements of its kind (the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, for example) it actually adds to the magnificence of its setting. Sadly such triumphs of design, functionality and economic farsightedness have become the exception these days in the US.

When he won the 2008 election, Barack Obama was being hailed as Roosevelt redux. Just like FDR, he had come to power in miserable economic times, a Democratic president promising to unleash the power of the government on vast public works to revive the economy and generate jobs. Thus far at least, it hasn't happened – for several reasons.

The first of course is Governor Christie's objection. When state and federal budgets are under so much pressure such projects, it is argued, cannot be afforded. Americans like bold infrastructure spending, but not if it expands the deficit even further.

Second, among the presidents separating Obama from FDR is a certain Ronald Reagan, whose hostility to big government shifted the whole spectrum of US politics to the right. Since Reagan, public suspicion of government intervention has taken a quantum leap. Whatever you think of the Tea Party movement, the hottest thing in American politics right now and which holds the Republican party to ransom, one thing is sure. Tea Partiers are not into building bridges and modernising airports out of the public purse, or endowing the US with a state-of-the-art passenger rail system.

Europeans who visit the East Coast are the mirror image of Americans heading in the opposite direction, often astonished that there is no true high-speed rail link between Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. However it's not for want of trying.

Last month Amtrak, the national passenger rail network, unveiled a plan that would put Washington within 96 minutes of New York and barely three hours of Boston. The only problem was, it would take 30 years and cost $117bn. But even that is nothing compared to the $2.2trn which the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates is needed to get the country's infrastructure into good shape. In that context, the $50bn scheme announced by President Obama to improve roads, railways and airports is a drop in the ocean.

But opportunity still beckons. Long-term borrowing rates are rock-bottom; a 9.6 per cent unemployment rate underlines how much spare capacity exists in the economy. As the infrastructure declines, so does the country's international competitiveness. In short, everyone knows something must be done. Indeed, even Governor Christie is said to be open to a rethink over that Manhattan tunnel.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness