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December 9th, 2010
The No. 13 Line
Gridlock Sam: Stand Proud America -- Regain your World Prominence in Public Works

Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E.

When I travel to East Asia these days as a civil engineer I feel pangs of envy. I find myself at a new gleaming airport or I ride a high-speed train that makes our Amtrak look like the Pony Express. The countries I visit seem light years ahead of the United States when it comes to transportation infrastructure. Clearly I’m not alone in my sentiment. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote that, “We are the United States of Deferred Maintenance. China is the People’s Republic of Deferred Gratification. They save, invest and build. We spend, borrow and patch.” I couldn’t agree more.

The rapid expansion of China’s roadways, railways, metro systems and bridges over the past two decades has astounded and inspired me. Yet it is a constant reminder how behind the times the United States has fallen with our crumbling bridges, train delays, and poorly maintained roads and highways.

Even in the most rural parts of China you can see the bulldozers crawling the hillsides as new development springs up. The country has plans to build some 80 mass transit rail lines over the next five years, and is planning more new airports in addition to the multi-billion dollar airport they built for the Olympic games. The Beijing Airport looks like something straight out of a science fiction movie with shiny marble arched glass ceilings. The new bus terminal in Kunming is “hyper-modern” with light-up displays above commuter bus-loading areas that give riders real-time information about where each bus is going. Even some of the smallest towns have modest, yet adequate bus terminals, with ticketing, waiting areas and restrooms.

When it comes to alternative transportation, China has been a bicycle culture for a long time, with wide bicycle lanes and facilities. While on my recent trip to China I was disappointed to see how they have squeezed the bike lanes to make more room for cars, the country is still way ahead of us in this mode of transport.

It’s not just China that’s speeding ahead of us when it comes to transportation infrastructure. The Swiss are building the longest tunnel in the world at 35.4 miles. Scheduled to open in 2017, the $10 billion Gotthard Base Tunnel system will run high-speed passenger and freight trains through the Alps. Swiss voters each paid $1,300 for the tunnel. Could you imagine that happening here in the U.S.? In the UK, bridge systems are being retro-fitted with dehumidification systems to prevent corrosion, a prevention strategy to help decrease the need to replace bridges and rehabilitate them – a technology that was first used on the Kaikyo Bridge in Japan.

It was in Japan, in fact, about two decades ago, where I learned an important lesson about how impeccably they maintained their bridges and how little tolerance they had for anything less than perfection. In Tokyo I acted like a typical Westerner, which translated into an embarrassing faux pas. After inspecting about ten bridges, I was very impressed with how superbly maintained the structures were and thought I’d make that point after seeing a tiny smudge of graffiti on one bridge. I casually offered my version of a high complement by noting, “This is the first graffiti I’ve seen in Japan,” to a high-level Japanese official. Much to my surprise, and consternation, the bridge engineer was reassigned. I felt terrible, but the story has a point: The Japanese treat their bridges like an obsessive compulsive would take care of her living room.

It’s time that we started to own up to the fact that other countries are passing us by. We need to swallow our pride and take their approach. We can learn from their ingenuity. We don’t need to reinvent things. We can emulate them as they did us. If we look carefully we find it was the Asians and Europeans who learned from the U.S. post World War II. We don’t need a war to study their successes with high-speed rail, livable streets and intelligent infrastructure. I’m convinced we can do it better.

Let’s face it, we’ve lost our competitive edge, our “mojo.” Let’s get it back. One way to do this is to increase spending on infrastructure. America only spends about two percent of its GDP per year on infrastructure investment, while China spends between 9 and 12 percent, and Europe spends about 4-5 percent. India is set to double its infrastructure spending next year. Here in the United States, it would take a shift of increasing our expenditures by just one or two percent of our GDP to see dramatic results. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has reported we need a five-year investment of $2.2 trillion in our nation’s infrastructure. That may sound like a lot of money but it’s not much more than the government spent in the past couple of years to bail out the banks and stimulate the economy. (By the way, only 17% of the stimulus plan was ever designated for infrastructure.) Imagine what our country would look like in a decade if we could put those kinds of dollars into our roads, bridges, rails and mass transit systems.

If Congress really wants to take our infrastructure seriously and stop this country from falling behind in the global market, it will support the bi-partisan and President Obama-supported proposal for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, which would invest more than $50 billion in transportation infrastructure, including high-speed rail, highway improvements, and mass transit to be leveraged into $500 billion or more. If we fail to act, we will continue to lose investors to the rest of the world. Right now, public-private partnerships of non-American firms are taking the lead in transportation infrastructure spending. The U.S. private market needs more incentives to participate. With their partnership, we can hope to achieve the bipartisan plan’s goals to rebuild 150,000 miles of road, lay and maintain 4,000 miles of rail track, restore 150 miles of airport runways, and improve air-traffic control technologies.

I am very proud of our country and what it stands for. I just want to make sure it has solid and gleaming girders to stand on.

Ana Maria Lima and Morgan Whitcomb contributed to this article.

Samuel I. Schwartz is a former New York City Traffic Commissioner who currently writes the Gridlock Sam column for the New York Daily News and is CEO of Sam Schwartz Engineering.

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