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World View : Global Spending Spree to Expand Roads, Rails : Trillions of dollars are budgeted for public works over several years, promising vast changes in how things work.

December 22, 1992|PATRICK LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is no road so level as to have no rough places, Cervantes wrote.

Some four centuries later, it appears that government leaders from Topeka to Tokyo are agreeing. Those leaders have announced plans to spend trillions of dollars over the next several years to refurbish roads and bridges, lay tracks for high-speed trains, finance new communications networks and modernize airports.

President-elect Bill Clinton promises to "rebuild America."

If all those plans are carried out, it will mean a burst of public works spending that one economic historian compares with the initial building of the railroads, or the electrification of the countryside.

Aside from invigorating limping economies, eliminating traffic jams and collapsing bridges, this surge in public works projects may change the global landscape. In Europe, for example, new high-speed rail networks promise to tie together the whole continent in a manner comparable to the U.S. interstate highway system, said Lowell Christy, a senior fellow at the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington.

The buzzword for all the new programs is "infrastructure investment"--spending on the basic facilities and installations that, like muscles and arteries in the human body, enable communities and nations to function in modern society.

"Infrastructure is the growth market of the future," said Christy.

Among specific spending plans:

* Japan has already embarked on an ambitious program to pump $3.2 trillion into public works during the current decade--one of the most spectacular infusions of money ever.

* Meeting in Edinburgh for their semi-annual summit a few days ago, leaders of the 12 European Community countries approved a two-pronged package of public works spending that EC officials estimated would mean an extra $37 billion in continental infrastructure spending during the next few years, beyond what individual governments and private enterprises would otherwise spend.

* Germany is expected to spend more than $1 trillion during the '90s to rebuild the former Communist east. Although a large chunk of this will go toward job subsidies and other social benefits, much of the rest is for modernizing and expanding the area's road, rail, waterways and telecommunications networks. The largest single chunk is $325 billion earmarked for transportaton improvements that extend to western Germany as well.

* In the United States, a cornerstone of Clinton's economic recovery program is to boost spending by $20 billion a year over the next four years for roads and bridges, a new telecommunications network, environmental technologies and conversion of defense facilities for civilian production. That would be on top of a six-year, $151-billion transportation program passed by Congress last year to finance new mass-transit systems and repair roads and bridges.

* The countries of East and Southeast Asia say they will spend $600 billion on infrastructure over the next several years. And the former Soviet satellite nations of Eastern and Central Europe have already gotten hundreds of millions of dollars in Western loans to begin modernizing their communication, transportation and other basic systems.

The reasons for these spending plans vary from country to country. In some cases, the motive is no more complicated than that existing systems are worn out or behind the times. Despite its international competitiveness and economic dominance, for example, Japan has infrastructure that possibly ranks as among the worst in the highly industrialized world: cheap, old and insufficient housing stock; inadequate sewage systems; overcrowded airports. It's mostly two-lane road system is so congested that the two-hour drive from Tokyo to Matsumoto can stretch to eight hours during traffic peaks.

"Everyone knows Japan is a rich economy, but in the provision of infrastructure, it still leaves a lot to be desired," said Graeme McDonald, an analyst with James Capel & Co. in Tokyo.

The bulk of the highway spending in Germany at present is concentrated in the east, repairing and upgrading long stretches of autobahn and secondary highways that have been largely neglected through four decades of Communist rule.

The short, sharp exits and on-ramps that characterized much of the eastern highway network--adequate for the slow-moving East German Trabants--generated a string of accidents after unification, when traffic accelerated to Western speeds. Of the 8,000 autobahn bridges in the former East Germany, roughly 5,000 were regarded as unsafe on the day the two Germanys unified.

In New York during a seven-week period in 1989, underground steam pipes exploded in three separate incidents, showering streets with cancer-causing asbestos and killing three. Meanwhile, in Chicago last spring, river water surged into aging subterranean service tunnels, flooding 200 downtown buildings and shutting down the Loop for days.

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