Why Do Americans Put Up With Decaying Infrastructure?

Compared to Europe's high-speed rail, paved roads, and underground power lines, America lags behind with its unreliable trains, potholes, and overhead power lines. Uwe E. Reinhardt questions why Americans put up with the decaying infrastructure.

November 20, 2012, 1:00 PM PST

By Jessica Hsu


Crumbling concrete bridge

m_e_mccarron / Flickr

"Arriving at a destination on time, something Europeans take largely for granted, is relatively rare on Amtrak," writes Reinhardt. "Furthermore, the train in Europe or Asia is likely to have traveled at much higher speed. The tracks there are so smooth that one could easily carry an open cup of coffee along several cars or work on the computer." This cannot be said in America, where cars bump over potholes, trains screech along old rails, and departure times are often inaccurate. Reinhard remarks, "Why and how Americans, who pride themselves on being fussy consumers, have put up with this mid-20th-century rail system is a mystery."

"Even more wondrous than the archaic subway and rail system and potholes in the streets," continues Reinhardt, "is the system of distributing electric power to households and factories in large parts of the Northeastern United States." Power is carried through lines strung on leaning poles, "which are vulnerable to powerful storms, like Hurricane Sandy," in contrast to most of Europe's underground and well-maintained power lines. Reinhardt brings up an anecdote in which his visiting friend from Germany "burst out laughing at the abundance of wires in every direction, something he had seen only on his travels to the developing world."

Why do Americans "put up so fatalistically with this old-fashioned and decaying infrastructure"? Reinhardt calls for a better balance between the private and public sector to bring America's infrastructure up to 21st-century standards instead of suffering "for days or weeks without light, heat and transportation, verbally shaking our fists at the power companies but leaving it at that."

Friday, November 16, 2012 in The New York Times

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