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A Marshall Plan for the United States

NEW YORK – When a major highway bridge in California collapsed last month, the impact on the entire southwestern United States once again highlighted the country’s serious infrastructure problem. Indeed, in a sense, the world’s largest economy is falling apart.

Ideological aversion to public-sector investment, together with the endemic short-term thinking of those who write budgets, has kept spending on roads, airports, railways, telecommunication networks, and power generation at levels far below what is needed. And yet the problem can no longer be ignored. If the US does not act quickly to provide its fragile economic recovery with a solid foundation of modern infrastructure, it could find itself sinking slowly back into stagnation.

It seems self-evident that a developed economy requires adequate, ongoing investment in public goods. But the state of infrastructure in the US suggests that many decision-makers do not share this view. A 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the US a pathetic overall grade of D+ for its infrastructure. The report cited numerous state-specific shortcomings, including Michigan’s “88 high-hazard dams and 1,298 structurally deficient bridges” and the “$44.5 billion needed to upgrade drinking-water systems” in California.

The report concludes that a $3.6 trillion investment (roughly one-fifth of the country’s annual GDP) will be needed by 2020 to boost the quality of US infrastructure by addressing the “significant backlog of overdue maintenance [and the] pressing need for modernization.” Otherwise, the country’s crumbling infrastructure will drag down economic growth for years to come.