NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What the United States Can Learn from China's Highway Building Binge

March 28, 2012

As the proposed six-year federal highway reauthorization bill dwindles to a three-year bill and a likely death by political expediency, it's probably worth taking a few moments to ponder China's unlikely success in building what is now the world's largest network of intercity expressways, says Samuel R. Staley, a senior research fellow at the Reason Foundation.

  • China's national network is about 53,000 miles and surpassed the Unite States Interstate Highway system in 2011.
  • For some, this feat is not all that compelling: China has an urban population of 665 million people and, in many ways, is still playing catch up.

But, this does little to diminish this engineering, political and social accomplishment.

  • In 2004, China had just 21,300 miles of expressway; more than half of the current expressway system was built in just the last eight years.
  • By comparison, the U.S. Interstate construction initiative began in 1956 and progressed smoothly throughout the 1950s and 1960s so that the Interstate system was half complete by 1965 and nearly three-quarters completed by 1970, according to calculations by transportation consultant Wendell Cox.
  • The next 9,500 miles of roadway took 20 years to complete (and another five to put on the finishing touches on the entire system).

Thus, China accelerated the pace of road development while the United States experienced a dramatic deceleration.  How?

  • The first part of the answer is as straightforward as it is logical: tolls. China opted to use direct user fees under the principle that if the road produced benefits the beneficiaries would be willing to pay for them.
  • The second part is also as logical as it is practical: public-private partnerships. The first expressways were built by foreign investors in the 1980s, most notably Hong Kong companies with experience in infrastructure investment and management.
  • A third, and perhaps even more important, component of the China strategy was letting the provinces take the lead.

China's experience suggests that the practical path forward is to embrace the user pays principles of highway finance, capture private capital and expertise to build and manage these facilities, and devolve responsibility for the system to the states.

Source: Samuel Staley, "What the U.S. Can Learn from China's Highway Building Binge," Reason Foundation, March 23, 2012.

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