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Is America's future prosperity crumbling?

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Robin Lustig | 13:53 UK time, Friday, 12 October 2012

OHIO/TENNESSEE/GEORGIA -- Every working day, once in the morning, and again in the evening, Sarah Blazak drives at snail's pace in heavy traffic across one of the most dangerous bridges in America.

It's the Brent Spence bridge, and it spans the Ohio river, linking the state of Ohio to the north with Kentucky to the south. And according to US safety officials, less than 50 years after it was built, it is now "functionally obsolete".

It carries more than twice as much traffic as it was designed for, it has no emergency lanes for vehicles that have broken down, and its traffic lanes are too narrow.

Accidents are frequent - I saw a car that had smashed into the side of the bridge when I drove across just a few days ago, causing chaos as police struggled to remove it - and there have been at least two fatalities in the past two years.

"Every day when I get across, I breathe a sigh of relief," Sarah told me. "I'm closer to where I need to be, and I'm safer."

The Brent Spence bridge is just one example of a problem that is of increasing concern to the US - its crumbling infrastructure. Roads, bridges, ports and airports -- many are in desperate need of repair or replacement - and the resulting delays are costing the nation billions of dollars a year.

(The Brent Spence bridge is estimated to cost an annual 80-90 million dollars in traffic delays - because the I-75 interstate highway that it carries is one of the country's main north-south arteries. More than $400 billion worth of freight crosses the bridge every year.)

So why don't they build a new bridge? Simple answer: because they can't agree on who should pay for it. The present one was built mainly with funds from the Federal government in Washington - but there's no cash available from that source any more, and neither Kentucky nor Ohio much like the idea of picking up the tab themselves.

None of this would matter very much to people outside the immediate region, perhaps, if it wasn't a typical example of a much wider problem. The US has long been the world's dominant economy, a global leader in manufacturing and technological innovation - but the question is for how much longer?

Consider this: each year, the US turns out something like 100,000 newly qualified engineers. They're the ones who build the roads and the bridges. India and China, on the other hand, each produce a million new engineers, which means they have a lot more people available to build that all-important infrastructure without which no developed economy can prosper.

If you want to take a gloomy view of America's economic future, you could point to its continuing sluggish economy, an education system that isn't producing anything like enough mathematicians and scientists, and a corporate environment in which cash for research and development may soon start drying up as CEOs worry whether steady growth will ever return.

On the other hand, if you come to Atlanta, Georgia, where I spent the day yesterday, you'll find plenty of people at the Georgia Institute of Technology who are full of hope for the future. Lots of new ideas are bubbling away, they say - new materials to replace steel, new ways of producing cleaner energy, even new ways to produce robots with a sense of music - and yes, there's still money to fund the research.

Next Tuesday, we'll be broadcasting a special programme to explore some of these themes, with the help of a panel of experts at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC. It'll include my report from the Brent Spence bridge, and later in the week, we hope to broadcast my report from Georgia Tech.

Meanwhile, if you're on Facebook, do take a look at The World Tonight Facebook page, where you can see some wonderful photos from our travels in Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia, taken by producer and ace photographer Dan Isaacs.


  • Comment number 1.

    I’m not caught up on this bridge (intended), but why don’t the two states split the bill down the middle-?

    Of course, it’s not only the states that are in disagreement about how to improve infrastructure. Here’s a little more:


    Regarding the US not cranking out engineers…. That’s a whole (n)other story. At least it’s in the spotlight nowadays and there are some efforts at turning that around.

  • Comment number 2.

    The diabolical way that US Banks have sucked the life out of US business is the real problem. The institutional corruption within the establishment system in (both) the USA (and UK) political and the establishment is no longer interested in productive business, but is not only interested in banking. This has to change for the USA (and UK) to recover any vibrancy and dynamism in the jobs that real people do and in the productive industries in which they work.

    Exporting productive jobs abroad is not good for the people and the country, any country. US labour costs need to be aligned with the countries to which the jobs are going fro jobs to stay or come back to the USA (or UK). The fact that at present labour costs may just be 10% or less in overseas states bodes really ill for the USA (and UK). This discrepancy is due almost exclusively to the way that the banking system and money is (corruptly) regulated in the USA (and UK).

    The banks and their corrupt and incompetent regulation have strangled both countries (USA and UK) and until this situation is rectified matters will only get worse fro the country and the people. This has happened before in the 1920/30 and 1870/1890 and created huge damaging depressions. The massive incompetence and corruption in the teaching of economics and economic history, as a lesson in what not to do, also contributes to the climate that made these depressions possible as it has in the current depression.

    The way forward: The Long Depression of the 1870 lasted over 20 years and was like the present one founded on a property bubble. Why 20 years? My suspicion is that this is the half-life of property ownership and after this time there are sufficient forced sellers to readjust property prices back to internationally competitive levels- thus making wages levels competitive and bringing back the economics of running a productive business nearer to economic sanity.

    The one really major problem with us today is the other result of economic collapse and that is the desire to blame foreigners. The EU deservedly received the Noble Prize for for delaying another European World War, in not preventing it, but there are forces at work, notably in the right wing press today, as there were in the 1930s, interesting in the same newspapers as in the 1930s, that are deliberately and knowingly (or incompetently?) fomenting hatred of foreigners and of transnational talking shops and cooperation. This will lead to war. War of course allows business and jobs to recover, but is also very destructive. War does not solve the economic problem of the need to be internationally competitive which will remain after the war. Warmongers in the press always forget wars end and what we actually need is internationally competitive productive business, but as these publications are run by men of limited intelligence and an almost complete lack of any from of long view we must be aware of their malign influence.

    What we must do is fix the economics - and that means radical restructuring of the banks.

  • Comment number 3.

    Brent Spence Bridge - spans Ohio river - according to US Safety Officials 50 yrs after building, it's now "functionally obsolete": carries twice as much traffic as it was designed for, has no emergency lanes for vehicles that have broken down, and its traffic lanes are too narrow. Accidents are frequent. e.g. of crumbling infrastructure.
    So why don't they build a new bridge? A. They can't agree on who should pay for it.
    Consider this: each year, the US turns out @ 100,000 newly qualified engineers; by comparison India & China each produce a million new engineers.
    America's future - hyperinflated economy, bad education system, little for corporate research...
    What more do you want me to say? America's future propsperity if crumbling & a few bright & eager minds at Georgia Institute of Technology is not going to change that. These will likely emigrate for opportunity to build another country - one with a future.


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