US Lags Behind China in Infrastructure


Over the past two decades, armed with second mortgages and credit cards, American consumers have mounted a long march of spending. Now they are tapped out, and President Obama has proposed an $825 billion stimulus package of tax cuts and infrastructure spending to jumpstart our ailing economy.

Even without the urgency caused by the current recession, our country desperately needs to rebuild its infrastructure.

Our fast-decaying network of airports, roads, transit systems, bridges, seaports, railway cargo hubs, broadband networks, schools and universities isn’t keeping pace with the rest of the world.

Our current electrical grid couldn’t recharge a national fleet of electric cars even if Detroit was able to manufacture them.

Every century, America wakes up to the fact that it must modernize itself. In 1808, President Thomas Jefferson ordered up a plan that mapped out the infrastructure needs for that era. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt created a 20th century master strategy for roads, bridges and waterways. 2009 is President Obama’s time.

Most Americans are still living the illusion that we are the most modern country in the world. But travel outside our borders and the myth soon evaporates.

Pudong, the huge area across the Huangpu River from downtown Shanghai, was an empty field when I first traveled to China in 1993. But the area evolved rapidly, growing less recognizable each time I returned.

When I brought my wife and daughters to Shanghai for another visit in 2006, the muddy expanse had become a gleaming new financial district.

Pudong now brims with apartment complexes, retail malls, hotels and office buildings, all linked to one of the world’s finest airports by a state-of-the-art transit system. Today, the Shanghai metro region is the fastest growing economic zone in the world.

For those who agonize that China will eventually overtake us as a nation, both Shanghai and Hong Kong have already bested our cities. Their space age airports make the Bay Area’s three major airports look like tinker toys by comparison. The same is true for seaports.

In the waters near the highway linking Hong Kong’s airport to the islands of Hong Kong and Kowloon, an extraordinary flotilla of container ships waits to dock. It is no surprise that the Port of Hong Kong is one of the three busiest in the world, ranked just behind Shanghai and Singapore.

Bay Area ports lack speedy access to appropriate rail lines and distribution facilities in the Central Valley, which increases the cost of shipping. Consequently, more freight is shifting away from California to other routes via Mexico, Canada or direct to the East Coast through the Panama Canal.

China is hardly the only country lapping us on 21st century infrastructure.

Flying into Copenhagen several years ago, I was greeted by a standing army of windmills off the Danish coast that dwarfs our famed Altamont Pass Wind Farm near the Livermore Valley.

Later during my trip, I met a student from Marin who was studying wind energy at the University of Copenhagen, which offers one of the world’s leading programs.

I rode the high speed train from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1994, and I’ve taken the Eurostar from Paris to London many times since it first opened more than a decade ago.

But in California, it was just last year that we passed our own high speed rail bond, and then only by a razor-thin margin. The project still faces a 20-year struggle before the ribbon is actually cut for service between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Noted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently exhorted Americans to wake up: “Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones…All I could think to myself was: If we’re so smart, why are other people living so much better than us? What has become of our infrastructure, which is so crucial to productivity?”

We know what happens when any great institution refuses to renew itself.

Clint Reilly’s initial foray into political consulting at age 23 developed into a successful 26-year career in politics, during which he founded the nation’s largest political consulting firm of its time. Reilly managed winning campaigns for a wide variety of high-profile candidates, including current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and former California State Senate President Pro Tem Dave Roberti. Recently, Reilly has led the battle to preserve media competition in the Bay Area via two landmark anti-trust lawsuits (Reilly v. Hearst and Reilly v. MediaNews, et. al.). Reilly was chairman of the board of Catholic Charities/CYO from 2002 to 2006 and is active in a variety of civic and charitable causes. This article first appeared on and is republished with his permission.


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