The Sunday Times: America’s lost its can-do spirit in the jam of trains, planes and automobiles

Photo: Will Langenberg

Photo: Will Langenberg

I wish I could say that last week’s tragedy in Philadelphia — where a speeding Amtrak train jumped the tracks, killing eight people and injuring more than 200 — will create sufficient shockwaves that the government will have to change its attitude towards America’s crumbling infrastructure.

Even a small change would help, such as an end to the political deadlock over fitting all trains with the new anti-accident technology known as positive train control. Unfortunately I don’t think that’s possible.

America is a young country, not even 250 years old. Yet a creeping sclerosis is spreading through the body politic. The country’s ability and, more important, its will, to fix what needs fixing and improve what needs improving is collapsing.

Last year the motormouth vice-president, Joe Biden, whose interventions are often desperately unhelpful, for once used his love of the microphone to deliver some necessary home truths.

“Why did we lead the world economically for so long?” he asked during a speech in Philadelphia to celebrate Amtrak’s acquisition of a new locomotive engine. (The irony is duly noted.) “We had the most modern infrastructure in the world.”

Today America doesn’t even make the list of the top 10 in terms of quality of infrastructure, although Britain and France do — so does Spain.

“It’s embarrassing, and it’s stupid,” Biden declared. Then, to the consternation of his Democratic colleagues, he used a very un-PC analogy to describe one of the country’s busiest airports: “If I blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia airport in New York, you’d think, ‘I must be in some Third World country.’”

Though nowadays you might not, since in the latest “worst in the world” rankings by the travel website LaGuardia is placed ahead of most Third World countries — except for Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines and Uzbekistan.

I sometimes wonder what goes through people’s minds when they arrive at one of New York’s airports. Surely it must be off-putting to walk through terminals that look as if they were recently shelled by rebel forces. I’m not referring to the lack of basic conveniences such as internet access, fresh food or unbroken chairs. I mean the ubiquitous use of duct tape to keep ceilings aloft, and the dangling electrics that threaten to strafe passers-by.

If being shunted through a maze of dirty, ill-lit corridors to reach the cattle cull known as customs doesn’t sound alarm bells, then the squalor and chaos awaiting in arrivals most certainly will. The only benefit of being trapped in this time warp of Sixties obsolescence is that by now the intrepid traveller may have formed some idea about the challenges that await them on New York’s roads.

There’s no point worrying about the state of the trains since none of New York’s airports has direct rail links to the city. This almost counts as a blessing in disguise since arriving in Manhattan’s Penn station means entering New York via one of the greatest architectural blunders in modern memory. America’s busiest station is also its least functional, and possibly its dirtiest, which is really saying something.

By coach or car, therefore, is how most travellers reach New York. But as anyone who has driven in New York knows, the road network is simply one giant pothole broken up into thousands of little holes. There are so many temporary fixes being made, so much rubble everywhere, the highways look as if we’re still clearing up after Godzilla.

One consequence of our dire transport systems is that the rich are opting out. New York has the greatest concentration of private planes and helicopter services in the country. There are more than 150 private airports within a 30-mile radius of the city. (Frankly, though, with the private plane industry suffering 387 accidental deaths in 2013 — the last date for which figures are available — I’d rather go commercial than turn each trip into a roll of the dice.)

I offer this tiny snapshot of New York life as a way of imparting some reality to the blizzard of statistics on failing US infrastructure. The most recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that one in nine bridges are “structurally deficient” and 32% of US roads are substandard.

Pity the poor residents of Washington who spend 67 hours a year — the highest in the country — sitting nose to tail in traffic. Road congestion costs the country $101bn (£64bn) annually; airport delays add another $22bn. A 2013 aviation survey claimed that US airports would have to invest $71.3bn in repairs and upgrades just to keep pace with the rise in passengers. A further $86bn would be needed to erase the backlog of repairs to the nation’s public transport systems.

According to the ASCE, time is of the essence. Unless Congress tackles the infrastructure deficit, during the next five years exports will decrease by $28bn, more than 876,000 jobs will be lost and GDP will drop by almost $900bn. In a $17 trillion economy that’s a cost of more than 5%.

Just how likely it is that Congress will pull its finger out can be judged by the fact that the day after the Philadelphia crash the House appropriations committee voted to cut Amtrak’s funding by a fifth. In two months’ time the Highway Trust Fund — which collects and distributes federal money for highway and transport projects — is going to go bankrupt because it hasn’t received an increase in funding since 1993.

In March the White House asked Congress to vote on a $478bn transport bill that addresses many but not all of the country’s most pressing problems. The bill received little fanfare in the media and has no chance of passing. It’s not simply a matter of Republican dislike of anything that has the word “public” associated with it, or rural selfishness towards the needs of urbanites. It’s also because there is no single, unifying force able to yoke federal, state and local authorities together over what needs to be done.

The can-do spirit that brought President Dwight D Eisenhower’s 48,000-mile interstate highway system into being has fizzled. The cars are stuck, the trains are slow, the planes are delayed; and meanwhile the authorities are going round in circles.

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