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Falling Behind

New Delhi's driverless and fully automated metro.
New Delhi's driverless and fully automated metro.

The Ginsberg family just returned from a lovely vacation in beautiful, sunny Spain.

We visited architectural wonders such as the Alhambra in Granada and Cordoba’s Great Mosque, the Mezquita, whose beauty so awed Christians that they built their cathedral within the origInal Moorish structure. We viewed some of the world’s greatest art: Velazquez and Goya paintings in the Prado in Madrid, El Greco’s work in Toledo, and Picasso in a museum dedicated to his art in his native Malaga. We ate some great food, including one dinner on a balcony overlooking the Alhambra.

We also marveled at Spain’s infrastructure. We flew in an out of Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport, sleek, clean, and up-to-date. We drove on well-maintained highways, and we rode a train that was on-time, modern, and litter-free.

Then we landed at New York’s JFK Airport, once a paean to modern architecture, now a decrepit relic that is dirty, cramped, and difficult to navigate. We drove home on uneven roads full of potholes and over bridges in danger of collapse.

Americans should travel more. If they did, they would see that Spain is not unique. Most of Europe, most of the advanced, industrial world, maintains its infrastructure, continually improving roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, railroads with the latest technology. And remember, Europe kept up its infrastructure during the recent economic downturn, which hit countries like Spain especially hard.

It’s not just Europe that is leaving America in the dust. China, India, and other developing nations have built and are building gleaming airports and efficient metro systems. These countries understand that if they are to compete in the modern world, they have to be able to move people and goods efficiently and quickly.

Updating a nation’s infrastructure costs money; spending money means levying taxes. But Americans live in a tax-averse society. The nation has been bombarded with conservative pronouncements about the evil of taxes — with little regard for their intended use — for the last three or four decades. For the time being, conservatives have won the argument.

Which is why Congress is unable to enact a long-term solution for the nearly depleted federal Highway Trust Fund. The best the House could do earlier this week is to approve a temporary fix that saves thousands of jobs and prevents a shutdown of road construction next month. The bill provides the fund with $11 billion by using pension tax changes, customs fees, and a transfer from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund. These are budgetary gimmicks, not a serious solution to an existing problem.

President Obama has proposed a $302 billion transportation program, financed by traditional gasoline taxes, so-called “user” taxes, and some corporate tax breaks. The current gasoline tax, which has not been raised in twenty years and has not kept up with inflation, does not generate enough revenue to fund the existing transportation needs of the nation. The tax will raise even less revenue in future years as cars become increasingly fuel efficient.

Conservatives won’t vote for a long-term fix to the trust fund because it smells of new taxes. The president grudgingly supports the bandaid approach since its the best he can get now, but he has called for Congress to consider his more ambitious approach. “Congress shouldn’t pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months, kicking the can down the road for a few months, careening from crisis to crisis,” he said recently. “We should be investing in the future.”

Kicking the can down the road is what Congress does best these days. That is, when it does anything. But it won’t solve the national infrastructure problem. It won’t maintain our existing roads, airports, and trains. It won’t provide the funding to invest in new technologies.

The result will be a decrepit America falling further and further behind most of the rest of the world.

Americans should travel more. They would see what is possible when you spend a few dollars wisely.

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