Why Are Our Bridges Made in China?

Rebuilding our infrastructure right here in America, instead of outsourcing projects overseas, could put us on a track toward economic recovery

Amtrak- AP- Tom Gannam- body.jpg

In my first piece for The Atlantic, I talked about the breakdown of our infrastructure based on my experience with the Washington DC Metro: the broken escalators, the slow Orange line, the unscheduled stops in the middle of tunnels. Today I'd like to add my complaints about the Maryland Area Regional Commuter line, MARC, where delays are not uncommon, and Amtrak's Acela, which sustained a speed of 0 mph for two straight hours in New York's Penn Station during one of my recent trips.

I choose the quiet car, because I don't want to hear the curses that greet one delay after another. But then I think, Is passivity really the American way? Aren't we supposed to take action, do something, get the job done? Americans solve problems. What's going on when I read that China is launching a new line of fast trains and we aren't even able to get our slow trains going?  

So I took it personally when Congressman John Mica, a Florida Republican and head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee -- rather than embracing the idea of an infrastructure bank that had the backing of John Kerry (Democrat) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (Republican), the Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO -- proposed to decrease infrastructure funding even beyond what Paul Ryan had proposed. Mica wants a 40 percent cut, to outdo the Tea Party's cut of 30 percent.

The Republicans say they want to create jobs. But making it difficult to get to work is not the right path. And it's tough get a job when you can't get to an interview on time. On the delayed Acela, one of my fellow passengers complained (despite being in the quiet car) that he was going to miss his meeting with a potential client. As we sat in the station, unmoving, he became increasingly agitated and depressed. "In this bad economy, I really can't afford not to meet him," he said.

At a time when many of the unemployed are in fact builders, an American infrastructure bank would be a boon if used wisely and well.

In contrast, a friend just back from Europe described fast, efficient trains that don't break down, that are reliable, and are a source of pride. 

Our trains were once that way too. A sign in Union Station boasts that when it was built in 1907, it was the grandest train station of its time. We were the best. But now infrastructure is seen by too many Republicans as government spending and therefore bad, or as better left to the states. Where would that have left the railroads that crossed our country in the mid-19th century, or the interstate highway system launched by Dwight Eisenhower? Nowhere.

America's infrastructure quality has fallen to 23rd place in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will take about $2 trillion over the next five years just to repair it. We spend 20 percent of what we used to spend on infrastructure 40 years ago, yet our population is much larger today.

Now some economists argue, "Well, that was because we were building it then. We don't need it now." But we do. Roads and bridges have to be maintained, as do trains and city transit systems. Most critically, as in past centuries, America should be on the cutting edge of new types of transportation. A nation works when it can transport goods and people easily and efficiently. And highways are not built magically. People are employed to build them.

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Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Mixed God With Politics and Lost Their Way. From 1995 to 2003, she was Maryland's first woman lieutenant governor.

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