A Bold Vision for Infrastructure

Eli Lehrer

Current Issue

For decades, the idea of investing more in America's physical infrastructure has enjoyed support from across the political spectrum. In 2009, President Barack Obama made an infrastructure-heavy stimulus package the first item of his legislative agenda. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump bragged that he would repair "crumbling roads and bridges" and "dilapidated airports" as a key part of his effort to "Make America Great Again." Democrats, meanwhile, opened the "jobs" plank of their 2016 platform with a promise to make "major federal investments to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure."

In a rare moment of political comity, President Trump and congressional Democrats even agreed to spend $2 trillion on new infrastructure in April 2019. While the deal itself quickly collapsed, it's almost impossible to think of another issue requiring significant new spending where the two parties could reach such an agreement today. And infrastructure is popular among the public, too: An April 2019 poll from the Pew Research Center showed that 89% of Americans — including majorities from both parties — wanted to spend as much or more than we do right now on roads and bridges. Add to that a bevy of reports and the conventional wisdom suggesting America faces an infrastructure crisis, and the case for a massive repair program seems more urgent than ever.

A look at the facts, however, reveals a very different picture than many popular accounts convey: There is no evidence that America's infrastructure is crumbling or that it is not globally competitive. Indeed, judged by its performance, our existing infrastructure works well. Rather than building more of what it already has, therefore, America should direct its new investments toward visionary projects on the scale of the transcontinental railroad, the interstate-highway system, and the internet, all of which have helped the nation achieve its status as world leader. 

STRUCTURALLY SOUND

For all the alarming headlines, the evidence of an American infrastructure crisis is mostly derived from a source with an obvious bias: the "report cards" produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The ASCE is a trade association. Its most recent national report, written in 2017, grades the nation's infrastructure a D+ and calls for drastic action: "Deteriorating U.S. infrastructure is impeding our ability to compete," the engineers write. "[I]mprovements are necessary to ensure our country is built for the future."

While these report cards are certainly honest on their own terms, one has to realize that they are produced by an organization chartered to "advance civil engineering." If the ASCE didn't continually find a need for spending more on civil engineering and creating more jobs for civil engineers, its members would leave. So, rather than accepting what trade organizations say, it makes the most sense to examine the actual performance of American infrastructure. By these measures, America scores pretty well, both by absolute standards and in comparison to other countries. This can be seen in the condition of our roads, our commercial-cargo facilities, our freight-rail, and our water systems.

Let's start with the most extensive and commonly encountered piece of America's infrastructure: roads. When it comes to their most important task — enabling people to commute to work — American roads perform quite well. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Americans enjoy one of the shortest average commutes to work in the developed world at only 27 minutes. This is shorter than that of any other member of the G-7. And America's roads — which carry more than 90% of commuters — are in better shape than they were in the past: As Brown University's Matthew Turner observes in a report for the Brookings Institution, road quality consistently improved every year from 1993 to 2015 (the year for which the most recent data is available).

Meanwhile, our supposedly decrepit bridges, though frequently in the headlines, are not quite the danger they are reported to be. About 9% of bridges are, under the criteria of the National Bridge Inspection Standards, "structurally deficient." This sounds scary, but as the Virginia Department of Transportation writes, "[t]he fact that a bridge is ‘structurally deficient' does not imply that it is likely to collapse or that it is unsafe. It means the bridge must be monitored, inspected and maintained." A bridge becomes structurally deficient if any part of it — deck, superstructure, or substructure — rates a score of four or less on a zero-to-nine scale that civil engineers use. In any case, the number of structurally deficient bridges is falling, from 12% in 2009 to just above 9% in 2016. It's not surprising, then, that more people (20) died from lighting strikes in 2019 than have died in bridge collapses resulting from maintenance or construction problems since 2000 (13, all in one incident).

A look at commercial transportation — mostly the movement of shipping containers and trailer trucks between roads, ports, and rail lines — tells a similar story. In the World Bank's Logistics Performance Index, America ranks seventh in overall infrastructure — statistically tied with Singapore. The countries ranking above the United States are all far smaller geographically, making it much easier for them to maintain their infrastructures. The country that ranked number one on the bank's index, Germany, is about the size of Montana, and is seven times more densely packed than the United States. U.S. infrastructure overall, the World Bank finds, greatly outperforms that of wealthy countries like Canada and Australia that have similarly low population densities.

America's freight-rail system is likely the best in the world. Not only does the United States ship the most freight by rail of any country in the world, it also ships much more freight per capita than its economic peers. For purposes of comparison, the United States ships 5,000 ton-miles of rail freight per person per year, compared to just 500 in the European Union. Indeed, the U.S. freight system is not only faster, bigger, more frequently used, and more efficient than that of any other developed country, it is also less expensive. America's freight-rail costs are about half of what they were in real dollar terms when freight railroads were deregulated in the early 1980s. It's worth noting, however, that this highly efficient and productive freight system has come partly at the expense of passenger trains (more on this below).

The performance of water infrastructure, a topic recently in the news, is difficult to measure for international comparison purposes, since virtually everyone who wants clean running water and modern toilets has access to them in every developed country, including the United States. The fact that elevated lead levels in Flint, Michigan's drinking water were a (fully justified) national scandal is a testament to America's success in this regard. Indeed, in the last several decades, drinking-water systems have only continued to improve throughout the United States. In 2017, 93% of Americans were serviced by community water systems that had no violations of clean drinking-water standards, up from 79% when measurement under current standards began in 1993. Most violations, furthermore, involve minor issues such as paperwork errors or elevated levels of contaminants that would do harm if allowed to persist but are likely benign when corrected quickly. In short, almost no one in America lacks access to modern plumbing or clean drinking water.

For all the complaints about its airports, America's air-travel infrastructure also does well when it comes to actual performance. It is both heavily used and productive: Americans average about 2.5 passenger air trips per capita annually. Except for a few small countries that have major air hubs — Ireland, Iceland, and the United Arab Emirates — this average is greater than that of travelers from anywhere else in the world. And America's airports, in quality and maintenance, are roughly similar to those around the developed world. True, a few major airports like New York's LaGuardia are dirty and have poor amenities (although an overhaul is in progress there), and the plushest airports in Asia are, indeed, much nicer than anything that exists in the United States or Europe. The biggest problems facing American airports are related not to physical infrastructure, however, but to the number of flights allowed in certain key hub airports. For a variety of reasons — many of them related to politics, antitrust concerns, and favoritism — these numbers are far more limited than they should be. But the main point is that this causes far more problems than inadequate infrastructure does.

Likewise, America's telecommunications infrastructure is probably the world's best. Not only are nearly all of the democratic world's large data-center providers based in the United States, but U.S. internet (after lagging for years) is about twice as fast as the global average and ahead of all the other G-7 countries except France. The internet has also reached the entire American population: The United States has 293 million internet users, which is just about equal to its total non-institutionalized population aged nine years or older. And by most accounts, the United States appears ready for 5G: After years of fretting that America was falling behind in the race to implement 5G mobile networks, the CTIA, the trade association that represents the wireless communications industry (and which, like the ASCE, has incentive to claim that the country is "falling behind" in order to claim subsidies), observes not only that the nation is ready for 5G, but that in fact it is leading the way.

This does not mean that America leads the world in all areas of infrastructure. Indeed, we lag behind in several respects. In many cases, it's obvious why. For example, Netherlands and the United Kingdom have vastly better flood-protection systems than the United States, but as small, wealthy, low-lying, land-constrained countries, these investments make sense in a way they simply would not in the United States.

The same can be said for passenger rail. By any reasonable standard, America's intercity railroad system is slower, less frequently used, and less efficient than those in most of the European Union, China, and wealthy Asian countries. Yet this is largely because passenger rail is just not practical in large parts of the United States. Trains are useful for trips of 300 miles or fewer and for people who do business near major train stations. At longer distances, however, they become far less efficient. In Japan, which invented modern high-speed rail and likely has the best such system in the world, the two largest metropolitan conglomerations — centered near Tokyo and Osaka — are about 300 miles apart. America's two largest metropolitan areas, New York and Los Angeles, are nearly 3,000 miles apart. Better high-speed rail — if built in a cost-effective manner — could make sense between major cities in the Northeast, as well as between the metropolises in California (where the state has started work on a system), Florida, and Texas (where a privately financed project is moving forward). But it isn't practical in most of the country, and doing it quickly would require replacing freight-rail lines, which are almost certainly more economically useful than better passenger service would be. Such a system will prove hard to build without thousands of miles of new tracks, a massive investment that few are willing to make.

In some respects, American mass transit is also underdeveloped relative to that of other countries, but this seems to be due more to culture than anything else. The main reason for this underdevelopment isn't that the United States does not invest in transit. In fact, America has opened more than 20 new urban streetcar or light-rail systems since 2000 — about the same number per capita as the European Union. Rather, the driving force behind America's relatively weak mass transit is that the bulk of American transit development happened after the advent of the automobile.

But the reasons also go deeper than cost or timing: Americans just don't like to ride public transit if they can avoid it, even when it is available and takes them where they need it to go. The Washington, D.C., and Toronto metropolitan areas serve as useful comparisons. Each has about the same population (6.2 million and 5.9 million, respectively). While D.C. has a larger subway system (118 miles versus 48 miles), the two cities have similarly large commuter-rail systems (although Toronto's runs more frequently) and roughly equal bus services. And like D.C., Toronto has seen most of its growth occur during the age of the automobile. Yet D.C. has about half of Toronto's per-capita transit ridership and about a quarter of the rail boardings per mile of track. Some of the difference may be due to the fact that people in D.C. have higher incomes and access to cheaper gasoline, but just as much can be explained by the fact that historically, Americans have supported policy decisions that encourage automobile-reliant urban planning and lower-density cities. It is therefore unlikely that any amount of investment or quality improvement could get Americans to ride transit even at the rate Canadians do, much less at the European or Asian rates.

The bottom line is this: Judged by how well they perform relative to infrastructure systems in other nations, America's roads, telecommunications networks, and freight-rail systems are among the best. All developed countries, including the United States, have excellent water systems. In places where the United States lacks the infrastructure that other wealthy countries have — particularly intercity rail and urban mass transit — it is the result of a choice informed by geography and culture, not a sign of underinvestment or policy failure.

What's more, there is scant evidence to suggest that spending vastly more on existing types of infrastructure is the best way to use public dollars. In fact, the preponderance of the economic evidence seems to show that once countries reach a certain point of investment in infrastructure, additional investments have, at best, minimal impact and may even be harmful. Building more highways, for example, appears to increase employment slightly but does not necessarily shorten average commute times. (This is largely because once the highways are built, people move farther outside of heavily populated areas.) Nor does it necessarily increase wages or productivity, as Matthew Turner shows in his own work and in a review of the existing research (although it does create some jobs). Similarly, passenger rail attracts development near stations and thereby produces denser cities that are more environmentally friendly and aesthetically pleasing to many. But since the number of suitable building sites near transit is only a fraction of any region's real-estate market, rail investment itself does not appear to be a huge economic stimulus.

Other potential infrastructure investments would also likely not produce major economic returns. For example, the country's vast size means that Americans are more likely to have septic systems as opposed to city sewers, relative to the residents of other wealthy countries. It also means that broadband non-satellite internet is either unavailable or very costly in large portions of nearly unpopulated land. Building out more sewers, fiber-optic cables, and wireless-communications towers could be very beneficial for certain areas of the country, and it could improve living standards for the people left behind in the current economy. But it's far less clear that doing so today would have a significant positive impact on commonly watched macroeconomic indicators.

Finally, there is hardly any evidence that America spends inadequately on infrastructure overall. In absolute dollars, the United States spends the most per capita on infrastructure of any G-7 nation and about the same (just over 2% of GDP) on infrastructure as most of its G-7 peers, including France and Germany. Among G-7 countries, only Japan and Canada — the former with a politically mighty construction industry, the latter with an economy built largely around infrastructure-intensive natural-resource extraction — routinely spend substantially more on infrastructure as a percentage of GDP than the United States does. China, which routinely spends more than 8% of its GDP on infrastructure, is an extreme outlier in this regard. But there are reasons to think this may not be a good course for the nation's long-term future. For one, many of the largest Chinese companies are either infrastructure-builders themselves or financial institutions that exist mostly to make loans to these builders. And much of China's investment is simply an effort to catch up: While virtually every citizen in every OECD nation has clean, reliable drinking water and adequate sewage disposal, tens of millions of Chinese still lack these basics.

In short, while some infrastructure maintenance has been deferred, and certain investments in highways, airports, high-speed rail corridors, and other infrastructure — including in left-behind areas — could well be good policy, there is minimal evidence that America's infrastructure is crumbling, that overall investment is inadequate, or that our current infrastructure is uncompetitive. The problems that do exist are more a matter of political dysfunction, poor planning, and design errors than systemic neglect, and most of them are localized. In other words, the thesis that Heywood Sanders advanced in the pages of The Public Interest in 1993 — that the "idea of a vast and pervasive national infrastructure crisis has been built on very few statistics and a number of myths" — still holds true.

TRANSFORMATIVE INFRASTRUCTURE

The fact that America does not face an infrastructure crisis does not mean that the nation ought to blithely neglect the need to invest public funds in the physical economy. Indeed, it suggests just the opposite: Creating a prosperous future where America continues to lead the world is likely to require significant infrastructure investment. The United States has launched several major efforts along these lines in the past, and all have led to vast changes in American life.

 The major projects that have mattered have not simply been efforts to improve existing infrastructure; entrepreneurs have handled those efforts well for two centuries, as economists like Daniel Klein and Dan Bogart have made clear. Instead, they have been visionary projects that not only fundamentally changed the fabric of American life, but also helped the country lead the world. Three such projects stand out and are worth looking at more closely: the transcontinental railroad, the interstate-highway system, and the internet. All three are examples of transformative projects so vast that calculating their value is almost beside the point. (By most estimates, the last two now contribute more than $1 trillion to U.S. GDP each year.) And all three were investments whose value was not primarily captured by the generation that built them. Indeed, decisions to invest in each were as much a matter of ideology and vision as cold economic calculus.

THE TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD

President Abraham Lincoln built part of his early political career on being an ardent proponent of "internal improvements," largely canal- and bridge-building; these became a prominent feature of the nascent Republican Party's platform. But his truly significant infrastructure investment was the transcontinental railroad, which unified the country from east to west. Although the concept of a transcontinental railroad was first debated after the annexation of California in 1848, and studies on the topic were prepared under then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis in the mid-1850s, the Southern slaveholding class that Davis represented did not want it built on the flatter, more efficient, and economically sensible "central route." It wasn't until after the South started a war to preserve slavery that Republicans were able to gain the working majorities they needed to pass the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and subsequent railroad-development acts. These acts were key to Lincoln's vision for the country's future.

The railroad acts created a massive bonding capacity ultimately backed by the federal government, coupled with a system of land grants that went directly to two corporations — the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies — that laid the actual track. While the process of building the railroad was messy, corrupt by modern standards, and marred by prejudice against the Chinese and Irish workers who did most of the labor, it proceeded quickly. At some 1,800 miles, the nation's first coast-to-coast railroad was officially completed with Leland Stanford's hammering of a golden spike into the tracks just seven years after the first railroad act passed.

Although the precise central route Lincoln, Stanford, and others envisioned proved less than perfect (large portions of the original track, including the site of the golden-spike ceremony, were bypassed for faster routes within a few years of its completion), the railroad and the network of other lines it spawned did roughly what Lincoln hoped it would do: unify the nation as a continent-spanning power based on free labor. On the eve of the Civil War, all of the nation's six largest cities were on the Atlantic Ocean, and no urban center with a population larger than 100,000 existed west of St. Louis. Indeed, beyond the Mississippi, private economic activity on a scale much larger than a family farm or ranch was impossible. By establishing a means of moving imports from Asia to the population centers of the East, as well as an equally beneficial stream of inputs, the railroad made it possible for Americans to establish sophisticated business enterprises in the West: Cities that were tiny (such as San Francisco) or essentially non-existent (such as Los Angeles) became major metropolises.

The spin-off benefits of the transcontinental railroad were also immense. Stocks for railroad companies provided the backbone of the first stock markets, while the bonds they issued to build the railroads fertilized much of the modern corporate bond market. The Pennsylvania Railroad, the biggest single railroad company, was America's largest company for most of the first half of the 20th century. Thanks to the transcontinental railroad and the economic activity sparked by westward expansion, the economy in the post-Civil War period continued to grow as fast as or even faster than before the war. While less important than many left-leaning historians associated with the "New History of Capitalism" make it out to be, the slave system of the South was undoubtedly an important economic force. Cotton production, the industry most reliant on slavery alone, represented about 5% of GDP before the Civil War — about the same as retail today. Thus, it was the railroad that assured continued growth, despite both the end of the economically important slave plantations and the continuation of a Jim Crow system that locked one-third of the Southern population out of most formal education and high-status careers.

In short, the railroad transformed a country largely clustered on a single coast and cursed with slavery into a continent-spanning superpower where people — or at least white men — had enormous opportunities to strike out on their own. And, if they could combine great skill and enormous luck, they could become very rich on the basis of free, voluntary labor rather than ownership of other human beings.

THE INTERSTATE-HIGHWAY SYSTEM

From the moment the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford's Piquette Avenue Plant assembly line in 1908, America developed a unique love affair with the automobile. Indeed, since cars went on sale, America has had the world's highest automobile ownership rate per capita among countries with significant populations (only tiny but rich countries such as San Marino have higher rates today). Even many of the poor, often desperate "Okies" who headed from the Great Plains to California, as recounted in The Grapes of Wrath, did so with private automobiles. In a vast, busy nation still enchanted with the pioneer ethic of "Go west, young man," a convenient, speedy form of personal mobility spoke to something in the national character.

Yet as much as the car represented a cultural touchstone, even in its earliest days, there is a good case to be made that it did not really transform much of life before World War II. When Ford's car became a best seller, the nation had just come off a wave of suburbanization led by the electricity-facilitated construction of urban streetcar networks that allowed homes and businesses to separate across space like never before. These "streetcar suburbs" were built a few miles from city centers, giving the nation a taste of the decentralization to come. But nearly all Americans at the time continued to live in neighborhoods where they could walk to places that sold most of what they needed. Warehouses and manufacturing plants needed to be situated near railroads, and most were built high to maximize tight space near railroad sidings. Anything approaching a modern "big-box" retailer, with its attendant lower prices and large selections, was nearly impossible; the country still lacked networks of suitable roads to make deliveries in large trucks, not to mention parking lots.

With the Depression and war mobilization putting the brakes on much private construction between the late 1920s and mid-1940s, the American built environment remained remarkably constant. The two months of travel time required for then-Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower to cross the United States by motorized Army convoy in 1919 would not have been appreciably shorter in 1946. Yet Eisenhower and others around him envisioned a mobile society where families living on the median income could afford detached homes. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, pushed for and signed by President Eisenhower, made this dream possible. The act laid out a national system of interstate highways — many of them paid for by a federal gas tax — that linked just about every significant urban center in the country. When declared fully complete in 1992, the system stretched longer than 46,000 miles. It was thus the law, rather than the car itself, that transformed American life.

Like the railroads, the interstate-highway system was built through a partnership among various entities. As the name of its authorizing legislation suggested, the act offered states assistance to build roads through the Highway Trust Fund rather than having the federal government itself build the roads. The system also incorporated some stretches of pre-existing roads, such as the Massachusetts Turnpike. As was the case with the railroads, the "main lines" were only part of what happened: The interstate system stimulated dozens of other industries, and everything else that followed — including massive enclosed shopping malls, single-level manufacturing plants, suburban office parks, tract homes, and more — greatly exceeded the dollar expenditures that made them possible.

The interstate-highway system revolutionized American life. Average commuting time remained about the same length before and after the interstates, but people could live much farther outside of city centers. More land within commuting distance of job sites meant that single-family detached homes were, for the first time anywhere, affordable to a family living on the median income. The largest car maker, General Motors, became the largest employer in the United States and the largest company in the world, a position it retained for several decades. Manufacturing facilities and warehouses could be built on more efficient single-floor designs. The developments were not all positive, of course — as fewer people lived within walking distance of what they needed, the system also weakened traditional neighborhoods and hollowed out some urban cores. But economically speaking, the interstates were a great boon. And from a cultural standpoint, modern life would be unimaginable without them.

THE INTERNET

The internet, favored by many free-market advocates for its self-organizing nature and openness to experimentation, originated as a government project, just like the transcontinental railroad and the interstate-highway system. It can be traced back to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), established in 1969, and the augmented National Science Foundation Network, established in 1986. Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn developed the basics of the internet (the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP) on an ARPA grant. Although Englishman Tim Berners-Lee created the Hypertext Transfer Protocol that serves as the basis for the world wide web while working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the first modern web browser — which opened the web to the public — was developed at the University of Illinois's National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). All of these early efforts were far more directly controlled by specific agencies and government officials than any part of the nation's highways or rails. And while former vice president Al Gore did not invent the internet (and actually never claimed to have done so), legislation he sponsored — the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 — did play a key role in expanding the nation's computing infrastructure by funding the NCSA and helping build out more of the high-speed fiber-optic backbone on which the internet relies. No single organic statute launched the internet, however; its beginnings came from the billions of (mostly public) dollars spent to improve computing infrastructure for national-defense and scientific-research purposes. What emerged was truly transformative.

Like the railroads (but unlike the interstate-highway system), the parts of the internet built mostly with public funds pale in comparison with the parts developed through several trillion dollars in private spending by internet-related businesses. And while not as visible in terms of physical space as a railroad track or superhighway, the internet is certainly a piece of physical infrastructure — the email messages, video programing, news websites, and social-media platforms that flicker onto phones and computer screens must come from somewhere. Some of the country's largest buildings are now data centers; the nation's largest is 7 million square feet. More than 300,000 mobile-phone towers dot the landscape. Fiber-optic cable runs under nearly every street in the country, and Wi-Fi nodes exist in most every home, office, and restaurant. The cost of all this is immense and probably uncountable. And it's also very big business. Indeed, most of the world's most valuable fully private companies — Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet (which operates Google), Amazon, and Facebook — are internet-oriented enterprises. And all of them are American.

While hindsight has allowed a rough historical consensus to emerge on the impacts of the interstate highways and railroads, the long-term impacts of the internet are harder to know. A few, however, are clear. Because of the internet and closely related technologies, many items once available only to the well-off (or to nobody at all) are now at everyone's fingertips. Products such as phone calls, photographs, news articles, and encyclopedias are now free, or close to free, for nearly everyone. This development transformed some industries, such as telephone service and music, while destroying others, such as photographic film and local news. Certain limitations of geography have also been more or less abolished; e-commerce means that most every moveable item for sale in New York City is also now for sale in Des Moines, Iowa. Geography has become less relevant for work as well: The number of Americans working entirely from home increased from 3.3% in 2000 to 5.2%, or 8 million, in 2017. And today, more than 40% of all workers do at least some of their jobs away from the office. Online social media and other networks have transformed both the most personal of relationships — about a third of all American marriages today begin online — and the most public, as Twitter is President Donald Trump's favorite place for making policy announcements. An endless stream of news and information has created a market for websites that cater to serving us only the information we care about.

The aggregate impact of all these changes may not become evident for some time to come. As with the railroad and interstate highways, some changes in social, cultural, or political life that do not seem worth noting now will prove very significant in retrospect. All can agree, however, that the internet has created a major new economic engine that has transformed American life.

LEARNING FROM THE PAST

In considering these transformative projects, three major commonalities emerge: They all stemmed from a working prototype, established new networks, and were executed in a decentralized manner.

While innovative and important, none of the major transformative infrastructure investments of the past were entirely new ideas. The transcontinental railroad was finished nearly 15 years after Europe's first connection between the Mediterranean and North Seas. The German Autobahn preceded the American interstate-highway system by a quarter-century. While Americans did develop most key internet technologies, the first widespread, consumer-facing, networked computer system was not the current internet, but rather France's now-defunct Minitel network. Similarly, academics used email, UseNet newsgroups, and Gopher (the latter two serving as precursors to discussion boards and the world wide web) more than a decade before they were expanded for use by the general public. And though the American builders of these past major projects may not necessarily have moved first, they succeeded by increasing the scale of, and improving upon, the work of their predecessors. Successful prototypes taught Americans that their ventures were not just pipe dreams, but practical investments.

Past transformative infrastructure projects also consisted not of discrete megaprojects, but of networks. The transcontinental railroad, built by two companies, spurred massive rail investment (both public and private) elsewhere. The interstate-highway system encouraged society to develop around cars, thereby stimulating entirely new forms of architecture and urban design. The internet launched massive firms that built out the data centers, cell towers, and fiber-optic networks that most people use to access it. Similar megaprojects such as the Apollo moon landings; the Tennessee Valley Authority's systems of dams, parks, and levees; and the Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad built in the waning days of the Soviet Union failed to produce massive spin-off benefits because they did not create the same sorts of networks or stimulate significant new private investment. In short, networks are what unleash social transformation; it is the building out, not the actual megaprojects themselves, that matters most.

Finally, execution and construction of all three projects was decentralized. And while government always provided start-up capital and set standards, no single entity exercised full control. Though the transcontinental railroad was ultimately financed primarily by federal bonds, the main line was constructed and operated by two private companies, and dozens of other private entities built and managed the lines that ultimately connected to it. The interstate-highway system, while also federally financed, was constructed largely by the states and incorporated many roads that the states built without federal help. And even though the internet was developed through public efforts and received significant public financing, it was also built and operated overwhelmingly by private companies and consortia. These decentralized methods of execution may have increased the time it took to complete the projects, and it is possible they cost more than they would have if overseen by a competent, wise, and honest central authority (which, of course, is not always available); after all, they allowed for enormous levels of corruption on the part of railroad barons, highway-construction tycoons, and internet pioneers. But decentralization also ensured that no single point of failure could exist; when mistakes happened, other market players could learn from them. And so many different groups and people worked on these projects that, once begun, they all gained unstoppable momentum.

INFRASTRUCTURE OF THE FUTURE

One could argue that the reason for the lack of new, transformative infrastructure projects is simple: Few of the major projects being discussed would actually be transformative. And even if a $1 trillion or $2 trillion infrastructure bill is worthwhile — and the state of America's infrastructure overall indicates that it is probably not — repairing and upgrading current infrastructure while building more roads and rail lines of the types America already has would not transform society, nor would it significantly contribute to America's efforts to remain a leading economic power.

Visionary political leaders, however, should not discard the possibility of socially transformative infrastructure. Discussing every possibility that might work is beyond the scope of any essay, but it is possible to provide a few examples of the types of projects that could be considered. Three in particular fit the bill: building infrastructure for automated, electric cars; transforming the power grid to make clean energy very cheap; and colonizing outer space and exploiting its resources. All three of these projects have working prototypes, would imply networks, and could be executed in a decentralized fashion.

The simultaneous electrification and automation of cars and personal mobility offers the prospect of revolutionizing American life every bit as much as the interstate-highway system did. Practical electric cars and light trucks useful for nearly every purpose are already on the market, and models from Tesla are already leading sales in both the high-end and mid-range luxury categories. Since September 2019, Tesla has also deployed a limited form of full autonomy that allows cars to find their owners by themselves. Because of their intrinsic advantages to drivers — they accelerate far faster, need less maintenance, and cost less to fuel than traditional cars — it seems likely that such cars will eventually dominate the market, and would even if there were no environmental imperative.

If cars are to be automated, parking and road networks will also require transformation. Cars that can be summoned on demand across long distances will reduce the need for parking near activity centers. While cars store themselves on roads or at massive facilities on the outskirts of cities, areas currently used for parking can be put to other uses. Individual car ownership could also be largely replaced by subscription services. It is also quite possible, as Korok Ray has outlined in these pages, that actual road infrastructure may need to be reimagined in order to make autonomous vehicles viable on a large scale; this would make the undertaking even larger. New fueling infrastructure will also need to be put in place, requiring the replacement of thousands of gas pumps with charging stations and, because mass electrification of cars would affect grid loads significantly, the building of new power infrastructure. The impacts could be both immense and transformative for society.

Automated electric cars, in turn, suggest a second prospect for a transformative project: a massive overhaul of the electric grid intended to make electricity vastly cheaper and cleaner. Any effort to acquire more than a relatively small fraction of power from solar and wind energy will require massive improvements to the grid. While they have obvious advantages, these trendy forms of power work best in places with lots of sun or wind; moving the power around will require work. While nuclear power has great promise and doesn't pollute either, current designs are expensive. Some combination of solar, wind, nuclear, and hydro power, and perhaps natural-gas plants that sequester their carbon-dioxide emissions, could, if done properly, simultaneously cut Americans' electricity bills while significantly decreasing pollution of all types; this would provide a model for an economy that no longer emits the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Working prototypes for almost all of these innovations exist. The goal would be to create a template for a modern economy that could run on clean energy "too cheap to meter," as Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission under Eisenhower, promised for nuclear power.

Most ambitiously, the idea of colonizing worlds beyond Earth — not just to explore, but to inhabit — also appears to be within our grasp. The International Space Station, which has been occupied continuously for almost two decades, has demonstrated that people can live beyond Earth indefinitely. While the price of space travel has remained stubbornly high for decades (it cost tens of thousands of dollars to bring a pound of cargo into orbit during the first space-shuttle missions), it has recently entered a freefall. Space X's Falcon rockets aim to bring cargo into orbit at less than $500 per pound, and other launch providers' costs have come down in turn. If progress in reducing launch costs continues in the 2020s at the same rate it did in the 2010s, costs to orbit could drop below $100 per pound. At these prices, civilian suborbital space flights could cut trips from New York to Tokyo to a single hour, and satellites could blanket the entire planet with broadband internet that is likewise too cheap to meter. The potential wealth to be gained from mining the asteroid belt — which NASA has estimated contains a staggering $700 quintillion in mineral wealth at current market values — alone provides enough of a reason to pursue it. And building a new civilization on Mars offers yet another reason to look to space for the next great project. Doing so will not be a small undertaking; it will almost certainly be impossible without some degree of public-sector leadership. But it may eventually make humanity a multi-planet species that, over millennia to come, spreads across our solar system and perhaps to others.

America's infrastructure is robust and competitive today, but if the country hopes to maintain its global leadership, a reliable infrastructure is not enough. Vision is important too, and bold vision most of all. Building the transcontinental railroad helped America organize its economy entirely around free labor and thereby lead the Industrial Age. Developing the interstate-highway system created an America built around the automobile and shaped modern consumer culture. Leadership on the internet has made America the top dog throughout the information age. An America without new, transformative infrastructure might still be a pleasant enough place to live, but it would not — and could not — lead the world, serve as a magnet for the most talented people on the globe, and remain a unique center of remarkable innovation. Building transformative infrastructure is a matter of national greatness. With the right investments, America can retain its leading place in the world and remain a guiding force for the betterment of humanity.

Eli Lehrer is president of the R Street Institute.


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