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The Race to Rebuild America's Infrastructure: Channeling George Washington

George Washington
Hulton Archive | Getty Images
George Washington

In 1784, George Washington was certain that a highway would permanently unite the nation he had just risked it all for. American pioneers in the western regions were trapped between two world powers as he put it: “the Spaniards on their right - Great Britain on their left.”

Washington decided the nation needed to, “Open a wide door and make a smooth way for the produce of that Country to pass to our Markets before the trade may get into another channel.”

So determined was the general that in 1784, just a few years after the Revolutionary War, he set out on horseback from his Mount Vernon home at his normal pace of five miles per hour. Surveying the land and its people for the best route for the National Road, the nation’s first interstate highway, he journeyed into the Ohio country covering 680 miles in five weeks.

The rest is history: infrastructure, in the form of the National Road, made America stronger, safer and richer.

Paraphrasing George, today we find ourselves with the Chinese to our right and the Europeans to our left. As a result, we need to open a wide door and make a smooth way for produce to pass to our markets before the trade gets into another channel. The problem, the “wide door” we need to swing open is rusted shut. Airspace is congested, the grid is overloaded, highways are rutted, bridges are dangerously weak, over capacitated sewers overflow into rivers, lakes and harbors, seven billion gallons of freshwater leak from waterlines daily, levees are decrepit, dams are hazardous, and our public schools are unkempt.

Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims, Harvard classmates, were just awarded the 2011 Noble prize for Economic Sciences. Selected for their real-world science of modeling, the laureates are extolled for explaining the impact the global markets have on domestic economies. Obvious is the existence of a world market. But, they’ve provided evidence of the direct impact the US has on the global market – and vice versa. They warn us that more-and-more, what happens there directly impacts us here. As the EU and China build better infrastructure, we lose our standing in the world order.

Today, the sovereign states of Europe behave as a single force. Combined the European Union (EU) acts as if it were one country of 27 states, not 27 separate nations. The European Union creates one economic force with a population of a half-billion people generating 20% of the world’s gross domestic product (GNP) at over $16 trillion. Comparatively, the GNP of the United States is $14 trillion. Specifically, the EU is successfully synthesizing its cross boarder infrastructures: toll ways, airports, seaports, and rail lines. Think the Chunnel between Britain and mainland Europe. Adding to the intensity of this competition, Europe has the most educated and skilled workforce in the world.

By physically opening boarders and breaking down barriers to internal trade, Europe’s out maneuvering the United States. As a result, the Chinese and Europeans see each others markets as an ever more attractive place to do business. As overcapacity and declining efficiencies in the US turn our infrastructure from an asset into a liability, the EU and China are negotiating the building of infrastructure projects that further disadvantage the US.. Negations are underway for a high-speed train service between London and Beijing.

The US is further disadvantaged by the Pacific Ocean. The EU and China have a land bridge between them. Infrastructure and geography give China and Europe powerful incentives to trade among themselves and leave the US out of a critical trade triangle. This is not an original thought.

Think: the ancient Silk Road that first commercially connected Europe and Asia over 2,000 years ago.

"Our standing in the world of infrastructure has declined from a stacked rank of sixth to sixteen."" -Author, Dan McNichol

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping took control of China. He opened China’s “wide door” by building up the nation’s infrastructure. Today, China’s daily exports equal the nation’s annual exports the year Deng took charge. There was not a single superhighway until Deng cut the ribbon on the first one. Currently, China’s building a 53,000-mile highway system that supersedes the 47,000-mile Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate System. There was no high-speed rail in China before the first line burst out of the gates at a regular operating speed of 267 miles-per-hour from Shanghai Pudong International Airport in 2004. Today, China has already built the world’s largest high-speed train network – and it's only half-complete.

The US stands as the only developed nation without any high-speed rail (Acela does not meet the minimum requirement of high-speed-rail: 150mph). China’s air passenger service has improved at warp-speed too. Beijing’s airport boasts the largest terminal in the world, one that’s considerably larger than one of the world’s busiest: London’s Heathrow International Airport.

If the US is to stem the flow of jobs, currency and competitive advantages to China on our right and the EU on our left, we better get started in the rebuilding of our infrastructure today.

Dan McNichol is an award-winning journalist, a number one best selling author and an international speaker. Among the books he has written are, "The Roads That Built America" and "Asphalt in America." The University of Pennsylvania Press published McNichol’s work in a new book titled, A Legacy of Leadership. Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush have praised the book for its contribution to educating the nation about the challenges of gubernatorial politics. McNichol served as a White House Appointee to the United States Department of Transportation under Secretary Andrew Card. You can learn more about him on his website.