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The state of infrastructure in the United States and the world, 2011

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Infrastructure — roads and railways, water and communications networks, ports and public schools — is the foundation on which all economic activity stands. Yet as the 2008 downturn threatens to turn into a “double dip” recession, a report from the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young, “Infrastructure 2011: A Strategic Priority,” indicates that the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in its infrastructure investments.

While there are some bright spots in the United States — in particular, the Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Salt Lake City metropolitan regions have found innovative ways to fund new transportation initiatives — the report finds only limited progress nationally. The U.S. is “laboring without a national infrastructure plan, lacking political consensus, and contending with severe federal, state and local budget deficits that limit options” even as many of its global competitors are “committed to fulfilling infrastructure agendas as essential for sustaining or enhancing living standards.”

Some of the report’s global highlights include:

  • Many European nations are working to “stimulate slowly resuscitating economies and [modernize] systems to ensure long-term commercial growth.” In particular, France, German, Italy and Spain are expanding their network of high-speed passenger trains as well as freight networks.
  • Despite an austerity budget, the United Kingdom has dedicated more than $300 billion to rail, energy and broadband access projects. Moreover, the energy initiatives emphasize reduction of the nation’s CO2 emissions.
  • China is continuing massive, country-wide infrastructure projects, including airports, subway systems and the construction of a 10,000-mile high-speed rail network. The projects have the dual goal of facilitating economic growth and reducing congestion in the country’s fast-growing cities.
  • Canada has dedicated $33.5 billion to a seven-year infrastructure plan, and has expanded the use of public-private partnerships to meet the country’s long-term needs.

Based on its findings, the report makes a series of recommendations for the United States. They include creating federal and state infrastructure banks; developing a national infrastructure plan that funds merit-based state and local projects; targeting spending in “global gateway markets where population and business activity are concentrated”; and phasing in user fees to help fund long-term infrastructure initiatives.

The short-term focus of many U.S. politicians gets particular notice in the report: “Although informed voters have passed bond issues and even some sales tax increases for new projects,” the authors write, “Congress perennially refuses to raise the federal gasoline tax or allow states to put new tolls on interstate highways, which could help ramp up funding for mass transit alternatives and repair existing highways and bridges.”

Keywords: trains, planes, Amtrak, high-speed rail, Northeast Corridor, financial crisis, economy, municipal, China, Europe

    Writer: | Last updated: September 13, 2011

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related New York Times article "Obama Pledges Public Works on a Vast Scale."

    1. If you were to revise the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?

    Read the full Urban Land Institute study "Infrastructure 2011: A Strategic Priority."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.