Bumpy campaign trail exposes infrastructure neglect

In this Sept. 11, 2013 file photo, vehicles drive on the 130th St. bridge over the Little Calumet River in Chicago that was classified as both "structurally deficient" and "fracture critical" in federal data for 2012. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

After three weeks of chasing presidential candidates down the roads of Iowa and New Hampshire, I cannot help but wonder if they notice the quality of the roads their buses and cars drive on. One doesn’t even have to listen to voters to see that neither the small-government, tax-cutting messages nor the lavish promises of infrastructure spending from either side’s candidates mesh with reality.

My recent flight to Manchester, New Hampshire, was cancelled because of a snowstorm, so I rented a car in New York and drove. The 250-mile drive is supposed to take 4½ hours, not the 3½ it would have taken in Germany, where I live. The U.S. has significantly lower speed limits than do European countries; Germany has none on stretches of its autobahn system.

I ended up driving for almost six hours because of the snowfall. I saw dozens of cars that had careened into snowdrifts by the roadside. Two jack-knifed tractor trailers narrowed the interstate to one lane.

I dragged along in my Toyota, equipped with ordinary summer tires: Unlike in Germany, there is no legal requirement to use winter ones in the U.S. I learned to drive in Russia, on awful roads and unimaginable clunkers with bald tires, and going slowly on ice and snow is automatic.

Evidently, it’s not for American drivers, and snow is a calamity here. That’s not just because roads aren’t cleared quickly enough. The cracks and potholes in them fill with water because of imperfect drainage, and the water quickly turns into treacherous ice. Driving safely under such conditions is a matter of luck rather than skill.

It’s somehow uncomfortable to rank the U.S. with much poorer nations. In the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness rankings, based on surveys rather than objective assessments, the U.S. is No. 16 in road quality — behind some Western European, Gulf and rich Asian nations, but ahead of, say, Denmark and Sweden. That has little to do with reality. The U.S. traffic fatality rate is much closer to Ukraine’s than to Germany’s, and it’s higher than in Bulgaria.

That, of course, is in part a consequence of underinvestment. The U.S. spends a smaller share of its economic output on its road network than most European nations.

That translates into washboard roads that can be called highways only because they’re wide.

The U.S. has long invested about 0.6 percent of its economic output in its inland transport infrastructure, mainly highways — less than countries with visibly better road networks, and even less than Russia (where a lot of the investment is simply stolen, however).

Alone among major European nations, Germany invests at about the same low level, and Germans are complaining about deteriorating road quality. They don’t know how lucky they are. On a good summer day, you can see the sky reflected in an autobahn surface (and, unlike in the U.S., there are no tolls to spoil the pleasure). German roads aren’t better than U.S. ones because more money is plowed into them — they’re just better designed and built.

U.S. transportation authorities have experimented with European-style roads. In 1993, the Michigan Department of Transportation sent its experts to Germany and Austria to study European road-building techniques, then built an experimental stretch of “Euro-pavement,” which cost about 20 percent more to lay than a standard Michigan road. Twenty years later, it found that the “European” pavement was in a slightly worse condition than the homegrown variety and expressed doubt that switching to the German standard would make sense.

Even accounting for more extreme weather, they must have done something wrong in Detroit. In 2006, the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of International Programs sent a team to six countries, five of them European, and found that where commonly used U.S. road-building technology provided for a design life of 20 years, those countries built concrete pavements with a life of 40 years or more. The group found, among other things, that European countries generally used higher quality materials than the U.S. to build a road’s base and ensure proper drainage.

Of the presidential candidates I heard in Iowa and New Hampshire, only the Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, talked about investing in infrastructure projects, not just to fix the roads and bridges but to create jobs. Throwing money at the problem will probably achieve the latter goal, but not necessarily the former. U.S. roads don’t just need investment: Their builders need a transfer of European knowledge and an incentive — possibly in the form of enhanced regulation — to use that knowledge.

As for the Republican candidates, it was as if they had flown between campaign stops, not bounced around on roads of which a country as rich as the U.S. should be ashamed. If they talk about infrastructure at all, it’s as if nothing were seriously wrong with it.

Here’s Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has practically lived in New Hampshire during the primary campaign, crisscrossing the state in a bus: “The interstate system is long finished, and states already oversee their own highway design and construction. Americans don’t need a costly federal highway bureaucracy. I will return the federal gas taxes to the states, leaving only a sliver with the federal government for truly national needs.”

Perhaps the Republicans’ failure to acknowledge the quality of the roads can be interpreted as stoicism, but certainly “making America great again,” as Donald Trump promises, should include great roads — or at least decent ones.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Berlin-based Bloomberg View columnist.