No blue skies near Tokyo as the capital gets a very wet August. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
No blue skies near Tokyo as the capital gets a very wet August. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The Donald Trump administration in late January unveiled a 50-project list that’s the first follow-up to the president’s campaign pledge to pour US$1 trillion into rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure.

The preliminary proposal comes with a US$140 billion price tag and is expected to employ 24,000 US workers for 10 years. Rail upgrades absorb nearly half of total costs and would account for 52% of jobs created. The proposal includes spending on airports, ports, water, power grids and pipelines.

Trump has also vowed to present Congress with a mammoth rebuilding package within his first 100 days in office.

Some transport analysts caution, however, that Trump’s gargantuan vision faces equally big hurdles. Chief among them is that the cutting-edge technology and expertise to build high-speed train systems and massive highway and bridge networks no longer resides in the US.

“Are there any US companies that can build high-speed trains and related infrastructure? Not that I’ve seen,” said Kevin C. Coates, a Washington, D.C.-based advanced transportation consultant.

Other analysts echo the view that American firms aren’t well-positioned to build effective transport infrastructure on the scale of Trump’s plan. This is due to long-term neglect of the sector and a general lack of US funding for public works projects in recent decades.

“I don’t know if America is even breaking even in terms of maintaining its bridges and highways in good repair,” said John R. Hillman, an award-winning US structural engineer who invented the hybrid composite beam for bridge construction.

The irony is that to build America, Trump may have to buy foreign.

Industry analysts say the companies with the abilities to fulfill such advanced projects are mostly Japanese, Chinese and German companies. They include Kawasaki Heavy Industries, China Railway Rolling Stock (CRRC) and Siemens AG.

Kawasaki is one of the world’s premier makers of high-speed commuter trains, subway cars and heavy construction equipment. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Hitachi Ltd. are two others with leading technology in these fields. 

Berlin-based Siemens produces the Velaro high-speed train that reaches speeds of up to 220 miles per hour. France’s Alstom is another maker of advanced trains, as is Canadian aerospace and transport conglomerate Bombardier.  CRRC is China’s largest manufacturer and exporter of high-speed trains and has helped lead the record-breaking expansion of the country’s rail network in the past decades. 

Crumbling infrastructure 

America’s defective infrastructure mirrors a long-term decline in US industrial and engineering capabilities. Many US bridges, dams and highways were built in the New Deal era of the 1930s and in the three decades following World War II. 

As federal and state budgets dwindled in the last decades of the 20th century, the US (with the exception of oil and gas pipelines) has built relatively few large infrastructure projects. 

The lack of public funds caused US companies specializing in infrastructure to shift focus and neglect R&D. Analysts say the problem has been exacerbated by restrictive federal purchasing rules on build-outs. Another speed bump is a shortage of US industrial engineers as retiring baby boomers exited the workforce and universities churned out fewer heavy engineering graduates.

“One of the reasons you don’t see any R&D in transportation infrastructure is that there’s no market for it,” said Hillman, who heads HCB, a Chicago-based composite beam provider.

Buying Non-American

China, in contrast, plowed hundreds of billions of dollars into new rail systems, bridges and airports. It’s also laid tens of thousands of miles in new highways and rail track in the last two decades. The country boasts the world’s largest high-speed rail network with 5,193 miles (8,358 km) of track linking major cities. Shanghai operates the world’s fastest commercially operating train, a magnetic levitation or maglev, that can reach speeds of 267 mph.

A maglev train coming out of Pudong International Airport, Shanghai. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

 Japan is building a maglev line between Tokyo and Nagoya and built the world’s longest undersea rail tunnel to connect Hokkaido with the main island of Honshu.  It also constructed the Kansai International Airport on a man-made island in Osaka Bay, which the American Society of Civil Engineers said was among the top ten civil engineering achievements of the 20th century. 

China and Japan are also exporting advanced transport, port and infrastructure technology to Thailand, India, Indonesia and Africa.

Switzerland is another world-class infrastructure builder. It opened the US$7 billion Gotthard Base Tunnel last year in the heart of the Swiss Alps. At 35.4 miles (57 km). It is the world’s longest railway tunnel. 

What’s more, public commitment to these efforts seeded local companies that could execute them. Many foreign firms also enjoy a cost edge over US rivals. Analysts say this is because they were pressed by governments to find innovative ways to slash costs.

There wasn’t comparable pressure on the US side since there were few major projects to encourage competition. 

Analysts conclude the upshot is the president will be forced to turn to foreign companies for help with the US infrastructure build-out. If Chinese firms are deemed impolitic, the way may be clear for Japanese, German and others.   

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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