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.

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.

At a time when many of the unemployed are in fact builders -- painters, electricians, ironworkers, sheet metal workers -- an American infrastructure bank would be a boon if used wisely and well. Proposed many times over the years, and again this spring by Senators Kerry and Hutchinson, such a bank would provide loans and guarantees for infrastructure projects by leveraging hundreds of billions in private funds along with a relatively small initial federal investment.

But don't tell that to those who see low taxes as the be-all and end-all and those who are outsourcing jobs to China because they can be done cheaper there.

One of the most stunning articles I've read recently described the construction of the new east span of San Francisco Bay Bridge by China's biggest heavy machinery maker. According to the reporter visiting China, "The last four of more than two dozen giant steel modules -- each with a roadbed segment about half the size of a football field -- will be loaded onto a huge ship and transported 6,500 miles to Oakland. There, they will be assembled to fit into the eastern span of the new Bay Bridge." "They've produced a pretty impressive bridge for us," said Tony Anziano, a program manager for the California Department of Transportation.

As a country we have to decide what our values are. Do we really want to be a nation that funds our spending spree through the Chinese, who then make our goods and do our work while we go into debt and remain unemployed? Work is more important than saving tax dollars. Jobs are critical. Work, not an unemployment check, is what makes people feel they are worth something.

The Republican focus on wealth, not work, has reshaped our politics in a way that is unhealthy for our people and our country. In the current issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris gives many examples of cultures in history where the rich refused to pay their share of the taxes and their nation was soon destroyed: the Han Dynasty in China in the third century AD, Hungarian barons in the Middle Ages, the 16th century Spanish monarchy, the Ming dynasty in the 17th century.

In their crusade to reduce the size of government, Grover Norquist and his taxpayers group are shrinking our notion of what it means to be an American. Rather than seeing ourselves as workers, builders, creators, and visionaries, we're reduced to the role of people who fill out IRS forms. Norquist's crabbed conception hurts our nation and our future.

I hope the combined forces of politicians, the unions, and the Chamber will eventually overcome the resistance to the infrastructure bank. We need to create jobs, and we need to rebuild our roads, railways, sewage, and water systems. Most of all, we need to revive our sense of energy and excitement -- the deep fulfillment that comes of making things we can touch and feel, things that really improve our lives.

 Image: Tom Gannam/AP