August 31, 2016

August 31, 2016 | Commentary on Transportation

What both candidates have wrong about U.S. infrastructure

They may not agree on much, but Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are of one mind when it comes to the state of the nation’s infrastructure.

In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump opined, “Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our airports are in Third World condition.” The rhetoric jibes with that of the Clinton campaign, which has promoted a video of Clinton during her secretary of state days declaring, “Our roads and bridges are potholed and crumbling. … Our airports are a mess.”

Another striking similarity: Both are wrong. Or, at the very least, they exaggerate the problem and propose the same wrongheaded solution.

The myth of “crumbling roads and bridges” is one of the most enduring in American politics. While there’s lots of maintenance and rebuilding to be done, “sky-is-falling” rhetoric is not backed up by data.

Take the state of the nation’s bridges, for example. The percentage of U.S. bridges rated as structurally deficient (i.e., not necessarily unsafe, but in need of extensive maintenance) has fallen by more than half since 1992, from 22 percent to under 10 percent in 2015.

Data assessing pavement conditions paint a similar picture. The Federal Highway Administration notes that pavement quality is not deteriorating; it’s improving. The agency’s comprehensive report found that the percentage of vehicle miles traveled on the national highway system with “good” ride quality increased from 48 percent in 2000 to 60 percent in 2010, while the share with “acceptable” ride quality grew from 91 percent to 93 percent. Similarly, a Reason Foundation study of state-owned highways concluded that “the overall condition … appears to be improving, and has possibly never been in better shape. In short, the U.S. highway infrastructure is not ‘crumbling.’ ”

The characterization of the nation’s airports as Third World is likewise exaggerated. But there is a striking difference between U.S. airports and the airports of Europe. The vast majority (nearly three-quarters) of European air traffic flows through airports that are privately owned, either wholly or in part. In the United States, not a single major airport is under private stewardship. Instead, they are owned by local governments, and everything from the airport layout to the fees they can assess is micromanaged by the feds, to boot.

The candidates’ proposed solutions are just as wrongheaded as their overblown claims. Clinton has called for $275 billion in additional federal infrastructure spending over the next five years. Trump, campaigning in Detroit on Aug. 8, promised to spend more than $500 billion.

But taxpayers can no longer afford the rampant inefficiency in federal transportation spending, much less jack it up further. Of the roughly $55 billion spent annually out of the federal Highway Trust Fund, less than half goes to actual construction or rehabilitation of highway and bridge projects. Nearly 30 percent is diverted to unrelated projects like streetcars, bike paths and recreational trails. States and localities are happy to build bridges to nowhere when they are handed other people’s money.

And to debunk another worn-out trope: Infrastructure spending is not particularly well-suited to creating the short-term jobs promised by politicians. Infrastructure construction employs relatively few people and requires a high degree of technical skills and training. Such workers are scarce among the ranks of the unemployed.

Furthermore, infrastructure projects require a great deal of planning, often taking years before actual pick-and-shovel work can begin. As President Obama learned from the so-called stimulus spending, “Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected.”

This is not to trivialize the very real problems facing our transportation systems and our economy. But these problems require innovative solutions, not more of the same tired rhetoric about crumbling bridges and jobs aplenty.

About the Author

Michael Sargent Research Associate
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

First appeared in the Boston Herald.