Public Infrastructure in Switzerland and the United States

How do the U.S. and Switzerland approach public infrastructure, and what are the results?

By Karina Rollins


The Gotthard Base Tunnel under the Swiss Alps—the longest, and deepest, rail tunnel in the world—opened on June 1, 2016. The grand-scale engineering feat connects northern and southern Europe by train, cutting travel time, and reducing highway freight traffic, thereby lessening environmental effects. The Gotthard project was only marginally over budget, and opened one year ahead of schedule. Experts have called it “a textbook example of a well-managed project.”

What made this budget and schedule accomplishment possible? According to The Governance Report 2016, the results are largely due to underlying governance factors. And, the Gotthard tunnel was no aberration: A 2017 ranking of countries with the best infrastructure placed Switzerland in first place (the United States ranked 12th).

How do the Swiss do infrastructure so well? The Hertie School of Governance identified five aspects of stellar Swiss infrastructure performance:

  1. Thorough advance planning with experienced project managers. Comprehensive planning before hiring contractors ensures the right contractors for the job. During the construction phase, reliable communication between contractors and experienced supervisors is key.
  2. Institutional memory. Those who work in public administrative bodies, such as the Federal Audit Office, as well as project leaders, can draw on Switzerland’s vast experience with building infrastructure, especially tunnels.
  3. Inclusion of stakeholders. Public support for big projects matters. In the case of the Gotthard tunnel, the Swiss made use of their famous direct democracy, and decided on building the tunnel, as well as on the route and financing, via several referenda.
  4. Re-assessing costs and risks over the course of a project. Unexpected events can cause delays or cost increases. The Gotthard project began with uncertainties about drilling through many layers of different kinds of rock—and project managers were aware that initial funding estimates could change over the 17-year project time frame.
  5. Continuous financial oversight. A parliamentary review committee evaluates and approves additional costs—a method that curbs spending. (In Germany, for instance, such committees review projects only after completion, to investigate what went wrong. Berlin’s new BER airport project is years behind schedule and billions over budget.)

Transportation. The Swiss travel more by train than people in any country in the world. Switzerland’s consistent expenditures on public-transportation infrastructure have resulted in an efficient network of trains, buses, street cars, airplanes, and boats. In addition to its top quality railroad network (totaling close to 3,000 miles), Switzerland has a first-class road and highway system (totaling around 45,000 miles), with many tunnels navigating through all those mountains.

United States

Between 2008 and 2013, the U.S. spent 2.4 percent of GDP annually on infrastructure—about $416 billion each year. Despite these expenditures, America’s infrastructure is in an alarming condition. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives U.S. infrastructure a D+ in its most recent Infrastructure Report Card.

The ASCE estimates that the U.S. needs to spend more than $4.5 trillion by 2025—nearly $643 billion a year starting in 2018—to repair and modernize the country’s roads, bridges, dams, and power lines, as well as airports and ports, public transportation, and many other components, such as schools and national parks.

While significant infrastructure expenditures are clearly needed, will more spending be enough to get the job done, or do other factors need to be addressed?

The need to fix U.S. infrastructure is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement in Washington these days. Such agreement was demonstrated, for instance, at the June 2018 Gallatin Forum on “Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure.” While differing on details, two panelists from opposite sides of the political aisle—Republican Jon DeWitte (YL 2015) and Democrat Michael Maitland (YL 2015)—agreed that fixing U.S. infrastructure should be a top priority in the U.S.

Transportation. DeWitte, chief of staff to Representative Bill Huizenga (YL 2009) from Michigan, pointed out the necessity of improving roads, railways, and bridges, stating that “transportation is the backbone of our economy”—nothing happens without it. He emphasized the need for “performance-based” and longer-term funding in transportation bills.

Maitland, chief of staff to Representative Donald Norcross (YL 2006) from New Jersey, called proposed infrastructure spending “woefully small” and emphasized that most transportation work has to be done in the country’s “high-density corridors.”

The Labor Factor. When asked by moderator Dominique Bolliger (YL 2017), vice president of HV Technologies and a Swiss-American, “Who’s going to do the work?” agreement emerged on the state of the U.S. labor force: Maitland said that the U.S. workforce lacks the skills required for the extensive repairs and upgrades to the transportation system. DeWitte agreed, adding that “it’s hard to find workers,” due in no small part to the opioid crisis, which has been draining the country’s workforce.

Maitland lamented that the U.S. “is not developing a new workforce.” He sees Swiss-style apprenticeships as a long-term solution, but the country needs immediate results.

Due to the lack in both skill and numbers, there was also bipartisan agreement on the need for foreign workers, through immigration or seasonal worker programs, with DeWitte stressing the need for “strong and defined borders.”

The Mindset Factor. “Does a mentality change need to happen?” asked Bolliger, pointing to how the U.S. differs from Switzerland in infrastructure basics, such as power lines. Unlike in most of the U.S., power lines in Switzerland are underground, which means the Swiss don’t suffer “power outages with every storm.” Of course, installing underground power lines cost far more than above ground, which requires the will to spend more upfront. Responding to the question indirectly, DeWitte said that “Congress has not been disciplined” in infrastructure allocation, and that “the outlook is not good.”

Explaining the political mindset, Maitland pointed out that “every [big infrastructure] project is longer than one election cycle,” which means that such projects “are never at the top of the agenda.”

Should Americans Copy the Swiss?

With the Swiss enjoying efficient, reliable, and safe infrastructure, and Americans faced with a decaying and increasingly problematic system, it is tempting to state that the U.S. should adopt Swiss ways and all will be fine. But, exact comparisons and duplications are difficult, if not impossible—too vast are the differences in geographic scope, in population size, in labor challenges, in security needs, and yes, in mindset.  

Still, there might be some Swiss approaches that the U.S. could consider. Mindset, especially, is one area in which Americans may be able—and may need to—copy the Swiss. While a country’s mentality cannot change in a matter of months, perhaps the political mindset—call it determination—can. There will be many different proposed solutions and funding levels, but no matter which ones are implemented, they will all require one thing to be successful: the political will to see it through.

Additional reading:

Switzerland’s Transportation Systems, All About Switzerland

America’s Infrastructure Is Falling ApartBusiness Insider

Why Are [U.S.] Power Lines Almost Always Above Ground? Border States

Transport Infrastructure and Vehicles, Swiss Federal Statistical Office

Lessons on Infrastructure “Made in Switzerland”, Switzerland in the USA