Shoddy U.S. roads, bridges harm economy

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — It was a beau­ti­ful May af­ter­noon when Don­nel Gomes took his week-old sil­ver Mer­cedes for a spin into the city. He turned onto Broad Street, a main thor­ough­fare down­town, and … ka­boom!

The car fell into a huge pot­hole, blow­ing its right tire, rip­ping the front axle and knock­ing out the air-bag sys­tem. Cost: $3,800.

“It was a wreck,” said the 48-year-old elec­tri­cian, al­though he reck­oned he got off easy com­pared with a mo­tor­cy­clist whom Mr. Gomes saw thrown into the air af­ter hit­ting a cra­ter on an­other down­town street. “A damn mine­field,” he said of tra­vers­ing many of Prov­i­dence’s roads.

Rhode Island has an un­usu­ally large share of shoddy high­ways, streets and bridges, but it’s not much bet­ter in the rest of the coun­try.

Amer­ica’s trans­por­ta­tion in­fra­struc­ture, once an en­gine of mo­bil­ity and pro­duc­tiv­ity, has fallen into such dis­re­pair that it’s be­come an eco­nomic al­ba­tross.

Con­sum­ers shell out bil­lions of dol­lars for ex­tra car re­pairs ev­ery year. In­suf­fi­cient and poorly main­tained roads mean costly bot­tle­necks for busi­nesses, which dis­cour­age ex­pan­sion and hob­ble Amer­i­can com­pa­nies com­pet­ing in the global econ­omy.

Conges­tion on ma­jor ur­ban high­ways costs the econ­omy more than $100 bil­lion a year in fuel and lost work time, es­ti­mates the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Civil Engi­neers.

And, says said Ca­sey Dinges, the en­gi­neer­ing group’s se­nior man­ag­ing di­rec­tor: “It’s be­come a white-knuckle ex­pe­ri­ence for many com­mut­ers.”

Age is a key fac­tor. Most of the ma­jor high­ways were built de­cades ago.

Amer­ica’s trans­por­ta­tion struc­tures look all the more frayed next to those in ad­vanced econ­o­mies in Europe and Japan, or in China, which has been busily con­struct­ing high-speed rail and new air­ports.

U.S. spend­ing for trans­por­ta­tion and other in­fra­struc­ture ac­counts for 2.4 per­cent of its econ­omy ver­sus about 12 per­cent for China, says econ­o­mist David Dol­lar, a for­mer China di­rec­tor for the World Bank. Europe’s in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing is about 5 per­cent.

Dol­lar, now with the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, says vis­it­ing Chi­nese of­fi­cials and busi­ness lead­ers fre­quently re­mark how sur­prised they are at Amer­ica’s de­clin­ing in­fra­struc­ture, some­times ask­ing whether they can help fi­nance im­prove­ments.

Amer­i­can pol­i­ti­cians, from Pres­i­dent Barack Obama down to small-town may­ors, de­cry the de­plor­able con­di­tion of in­fra­struc­ture, but many are re­luc­tant to raise taxes or boost tolls and user fees.

Between the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and lo­cal en­ti­ties, gov­ern­ment spend­ing for high­ways runs less than $90 bil­lion a year, which is barely enough to main­tain the sta­tus quo, let alone im­prove road­way con­di­tions and per­for­mance.

That’s partly why the share of con­gested high­ways in U.S. cit­ies has risen from 25 per­cent in the early 1980s to more than 40 per­cent to­day, ac­cord­ing to the Trans­por­ta­tion Depart­ment. Roads with “ac­cept­able ride qual­ity” fell from 87 per­cent in 1995 to 82 per­cent in 2010.

New En­glanders and those in tough-cli­mate cit­ies like Chi­cago are used to swerv­ing around pot­holes, de­pres­sions and other un­sightly road haz­ards caused by na­ture’s freez­ing-and-thaw­ing cy­cle and man’s salt­ing of the streets.

Some of the worst roads, how­ever, are in sunny Cal­i­for­nia. All told, about a third of the state’s pub­lic roads are in bad shape, com­pared with 14 per­cent na­tion­ally.

United States - North America - East Asia - Asia - China - Greater China - Barack Obama - California - Rhode Island - Providence


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