The infrastructure bill may help the United States close the huge gap with Beijing and its democratic allies on transportation, internet coverage and infrastructure investment.

When the House of Representatives finally passed President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill on Friday, my first thought was that maybe folks will no longer have to shake, rattle and roll on Amtrak.

Anyone who regularly travels the Boston-to-Washington corridor on Amtrak has experienced train cars that shake so severely it’s almost nauseating (not to mention constant delays, lousy internet service, and dirty train station bathrooms).

These are just a few symptoms of our crumbling transportation systems, including roads, bridges, tunnels and subways more suited to a third world country than a supposed superpower. Indeed, Beijing’s state-controlled media mocked the newly passed bill, calling it a “feeble imitation of China,” where bullet trains, broadband, and shiny new airports blanket the country.

First world

Yet the bill’s $550 billion in new investments in roads, bridges, trains, aviation, broadband and more offers Americans at least a chance to reenter infrastructure’s first world.

So hats off to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s tenacity, along with the 13 House Republicans (and 19 GOP senators) who voted for the bill. Unlike the Republican leadership, they were honest enough to recognize that America needs an infrastructure overhaul ASAP, not just for its own citizens but to compete with China in the 21st century.

“If we don’t get moving, they (China) are going to eat our lunch,” Biden rightly warned, when pitching the bill in February. “We have to compete more strenuously than we have.” This infrastructure bill is about proving — or disproving — that America’s democracy can deliver as well as an authoritarian regime.

Many Americans have failed to grasp how far we have fallen from global leadership in critical areas, but the rest of the world clearly takes notice — especially Chinese leaders.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a C- overall in its 2021 report card. But that includes a D+ for aviation, given delays and lack of capacity (before COVID-19); a D for dams and levees; and a D- for aging public transport.

Aviation industry rankings cited by Business Roundtable put only four U.S. airports in the top 50 worldwide, with the top-ranked coming in at 30.

Meantime, China has poured funds into infrastructure at a rate that dwarfs U.S. efforts.

I have watched Beijing’s infrastructure boom since my first trip to China in 1986, when Chinese airports and train stations were primitive. When I visited Shanghai on that trip, it was a city of bicycles with hardly any cars, and the Pudong area was a marsh.

On my last trip, in late 2019, I stayed in Pudong, which is now the economic heart of the city, with a forest of glitzy skyscrapers outlined in neon in the evenings. I traveled to Pudong on a high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) train from the shiny new Pudong airport.

Bullet trains

In fact, nearly every minor Chinese city has a new airport. And China boasts a 23,550-mile network of high-speed railways that link up the whole country. I traveled in comfort on a bullet train that took 4 hours and 18 minutes to cover the approximately 748 miles from Beijing to Shanghai. (Compare that with almost seven hours on Amtrak’s “fast” Acela to travel the 439 miles from Boston to Washington.)

Of course, when it comes to infrastructure, China invests at a national level according to central plans, while most U.S. infrastructure is funded at the state and local level. This means local politics interfere with any cohesive approach to construction.

But that is no excuse to ignore reality: America’s sagging infrastructure is surpassed not only by China. We have also fallen behind most of America’s wealthy allies.

One critical area is internet access: The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 18th worldwide in coverage. Our failings were painfully visible during the pandemic when many less wealthy students could not get access. Americans pay more than European peers for slower speeds — and many U.S. rural areas can’t get coverage at all.

Another perfect example is high speed rail, so omnipresent not just in China but across Europe. The United States has failed dismally at introducing bullet trains, undermined by local politics and real estate disputes. Most notorious is the failed bullet train project between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The $65 billion in the new bill for railroads contains no plan for bullet trains. But it should do more than upgrade flailing Amtrak. “We can’t squander this generational opportunity by only investing in the last century’s infrastructure,” U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) told me. He has put forward a national high-speed rail plan. “We can’t afford to ignore the comparison with China,” he adds, “and with the rest of the developed world.”

The new infrastructure bill offers a critical chance to play catchup. We need to prove America is still capable of doing so — to convince ourselves as well as Beijing.

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