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Worldview: Trudy Rubin: Where's the U.S. infrastructure boom?

SHENZHEN, China - While Donald Trump has been deciding whether to go mano a mano with China's leaders, I've been traveling from Beijing to Shanghai to this southern city, with a stop at China's technology capital in Shenzhen.

The clean and modern Shanghai Hongqiao airport
The clean and modern Shanghai Hongqiao airportRead moreTrudy Rubin

SHENZHEN, China - While Donald Trump has been deciding whether to go mano a mano with China's leaders, I've been traveling from Beijing to Shanghai to this southern city, with a stop at China's technology capital in Shenzhen.

I've seen an infrastructure network of bullet trains, glistening new rail stations and airports - all of them with clean toilets - that Americans can only dream of. Especially if they have to travel through New York City's Penn Station or Kennedy airport.

Like presidents before him, Trump has promised to produce an infrastructure bonanza, but we have no idea what he will deliver. According to a June study by the McKinsey Global Institute, infrastructure investment has fallen in 10 major economies, including the United States, since the 2008 financial crisis, while China is building like crazy.

"China spends more on economic infrastructure annually than North America and Western Europe combined," the report said. After my experience of Chinese trains, planes, and automobiles, that's easy to believe.

The massive Beijing South Railway Station, built in 2008, is bullet-train only with hundreds of people seated in an enormous waiting room before departures to several major cities. Somehow the crowds are amazingly orderly, surrounded by neon billboards and all manner of eateries, with a busy Starbucks at one end. The 909-mile trip from Beijing to Shanghai takes five to six hours, with plush red seats and young women attendants wheeling service carts with food down the aisles.

Shanghai itself is a massive infrastructure project. When I first visited in 1986, the Pudong district - east of the Huangpu River and across from the historic city center - was little more than a marsh, and Shanghai was a city of bicycles with hardly any cars. Today, Pudong has morphed into China's financial center and looks like New York on steroids, with elegant high-rises lit up in neon at night in bright colors as a backdrop to the river.

Shanghai's main international airport, in Pudong, opened in 1999. But what fascinated me was the Shanghai Hongqiao airport, mainly for regional flights, from which I flew to Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. I expected something modest, but this airport was massively expanded for the Shanghai Expo in 2010 and is still gleaming. It is filled with high-end shops such as Hermes and Coach - aimed at local Chinese - along with Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts.

And the huge crowds are channeled into numerous parallel security lines that pass through in surprisingly little time.

Shenzhen's Bao'an International Airport also has undergone major expansion in the last five years. This city, located just north of Hong Kong, is a Chinese hub of technology and innovation and home to the massive campus of Huawei, the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world, with 170,000 employees. Walking through the leafy setting, watching young employees on compulsory lunch break (50,000 of them pass daily through multiple cafeterias with good looking fresh food), I could have been strolling through a U.S. university campus.

Shenzhen, with a population of 10 million, is also a high-rise business hub and shopping destination. I couldn't help remembering my previous visit in 1986, when it was little more than a muddy small town of about 50,000.

Of course, China's infrastructure splurge can't be viewed as a model for upgrading America's woefully underfunded roads, bridges, airports, and train stations. The Chinese government made a decision to direct a massive investment of funds, and propelled provincial government spending, in ways that will never happen in the United States.

According to Bloomberg, China spent more than $10.8 trillion in infrastructure in the last decade alone. Government and foreign investment, bonds, local taxes, and vehicle purchase taxes helped pay for construction (gasoline taxes have been resisted by the public). China's now completed national expressway network is almost all toll roads, with a nationwide E-Z pass-type system, and tolls help pay back constructions costs.

However, the Chinese infrastructure splurge was meant in part to offset weak economic growth. Some studies argue that much of it may not have been cost effective. Yet as I travel through China's train stations and airports, there seems to be a lesson here.

Perhaps the Chinese government has built overcapacity (for now). Perhaps money was wasted. But attractive train stations and airports, along with decent roads, help Chinese travel in comfort and safety, help businesses grow, and convince ordinary citizens their country is on the right track.

Riding a bullet train smoothly from Beijing to Shanghai makes me cringe at the creaky shaky Amtrak Acela Express. Passing quickly through security at Shanghai's airport makes me wonder why lines at Kennedy or Philadelphia move so slowly. Visiting spotless rest rooms makes me despair over the crummy bathrooms at just about every American train station I pass through.

We should be able to do better. We must do better, for American morale and to remain a global leader. And doing better will require a coherent plan from the White House, not just helter-skelter private projects.

Over to you, President-elect Trump.