Pop quiz: What country is that train car in the photo above from?
If you said America, you’re making U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s point.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors, Biden lamented the lacking quality of infrastructure in U.S. cities.
I wish you could travel around the world with me. [I've traveled] 600,000 miles so far, just since [becoming] vice president. If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China and then took them to one in any one of your cities in the middle of the night just so they could see it and then said: “which one is in America and which one is in China?” Most Americas would say: “That great one is in America.” It’s not.
While conservative blogs spun this as America bashing, Biden’s blunt comment — if you ignore his odd reference to blindfolding people in the middle of the night — gets to an important point: American infrastructure is not competing with global cities the way people expect it to. The overall state of U.S. infrastructure was given a “D” grade by the American Society of Civil Engineers. And a study from the World Economic Forum ranked the overall quality of infrastructure in the U.S. at 24th in the world, behind countries like Barbados, Malaysia, and Bahrain. A humbling place to be for a country with a proud history of infrastructure innovation. This should be troubling to all Americans.
In Biden’s statement he was more or less preaching to the choir. Earlier this year the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a report that named infrastructure spending as their top priority for Congress — which, they say, is failing the metropolitan areas of America. In a 2011 survey mayors say, overwhelmingly, that they need more investment in infrastructure. Ninety-six percent said that investment in affordable, reliable transportation is an important part of their cities’ economic recovery and growth.
In response to the survey, George Pierson president and CEO of the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc., laid out the issue well:
Today, we are investing approximately two percent of our GDP on infrastructure; Europe and China are investing approximately five percent and nine percent, respectively. Growth in India, China, Brazil and other surging economies is being fueled in part by investment in transit systems, roads, airports and other infrastructure. Thousands of miles of high-speed rail systems are being built in Europe and Asia, connecting population and economic centers. When mayors in the United States speak to their need to improve the quality of roads and transit systems in their cities, they are responding to a public need in a way that will arm their cities for success in global competition.
U.S. mayors know first hand that their cities need more infrastructure investment. It’s a message Biden needs to help get through to Congress.