U.S. Infrastructure Needs a New Approach
To repair crumbling roads and bridges and other things, the first task is to make them more efficient.
By Thomas G. Donlan
It sometimes sounds like potholes are the only growth sector in the U.S. economy. The American Society of Civil Engineers—representing the men and women who plan, design, and build highways, bridges, tunnels, and other projects—gives U.S. infrastructure a D+. The engineers say we should add $300 billion a year to current state, local, and federal spending, just to get to “mediocre.”
Infrastructure has helped Sen. Bernie Sanders (D., Vt.) nail down his proud status as the biggest spender among the would-be presidents this year. As ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee, he has published his own infrastructure program, a five-year plan called Rebuild America. He falls short of the civil engineers’ goal, but he does propose funding projects worth $1 trillion of investment over five years.
The civil engineers’ economic consultant says that deficient highways, bridges, rail, and transit facilities are going to impose capital and operating costs of more than $200 billion a year on the U.S. economy by 2020. So Sanders concludes that Rebuild America can pay for itself.
No matter: It’s all about the jobs, anyway. “The Rebuild America Act would put more than 13 million Americans to work in decent-paying jobs,” says a Sanders campaign document. “These are jobs in sectors of the economy that haven’t fully recovered from the recession, like construction, and they are jobs that cannot be shipped offshore or outsourced overseas.
“Moreover, each and every project will require equipment, supplies, and services—from architects, engineers, and building materials and supply companies. Thirteen million Americans will spend their hard-earned salaries in their communities, supporting restaurants and local stores.”
As John Maynard Keynes advised, economic stimulation has nothing to do with investment, profitable or otherwise. He thought that if unemployment were bad enough, the government’s stimulus policy could be to bury money and put people to work digging it out. Thus he praised the building of pyramids in ancient Egypt and the building of cathedrals in medieval Europe.
The civil engineers aren’t wrong; there is a crying need for infrastructure investment. But these projects should not be managed by the same reckless officials who have allowed the infrastructure to deteriorate. For decades, they have been too responsive to business interests seeking subsidies for new roads to serve their new developments, which often are unnecessary and usually short-change needed maintenance.
To build a new highway or to replace a dangerous bridge, private investors should be free to raise their own money with the intent of making profits by collecting tolls, fares, and user fees of all kinds.
And these developers should be protected from rapacious regulators and confiscators like those who fixed fares below cost and then took over bankrupt transit lines and bus companies.
The higher prices that rational investors will charge us to ride on their trains and cross their bridges will be a useful suppressant of subsidized demand. The result will be better infrastructure and probably less of it.
How many cars and trucks will an interstate highway have to carry if a toll, using pricing that varies with demand, is as high as the traffic will bear and also is applied to the alternative roads? How much more attractive would investors find private rail freight if some truck trips were priced out of the market?
Some of our crumbling infrastructure never would have been built if it had to pass the cost-benefit analysis imposed by markets. Other projects that loom, like high-speed rail from nowhere to nowhere, would not be built. And the important structures inherited from our more sensible forebears might not be crumbling.
As a first step, a few congressmen have proposed devolving highway funds back to the states. They want to cut the federal motor-fuels tax to the bare minimum, and let state and local officials balance what they need against what they are willing to pay for with their own fuel taxes. More power and less money to them.