It’s pretty common knowledge that the United States has for years underinvested in “infrastructure” — from the power grid to physical plants to transportation — and thus one of the first priorities of the next administration should be to devote massive resources to repairing infrastructure. And I’m sure the commuter inching forward on a Dallas interstate on his way home from work or a passenger on a regional jet at LaGuardia groaning as yet another thirty-minute delay is announced would agree. And Barack Obama has endorsed a massive infrastructure spending program in hopes of stimulating the economy. So then — let’s get busy! Where to start?
As Bob Poole writes in yesterday’s WSJ, the mayors of 427 cities have helpfully identified more than 11,000 “ready-to-go” infrastructure projects worth $73 billion. Okay, there’s a start. And what kind of projects are these? Poole lays out several of them: a “waterfront duck pond park,” community centers, tennis centers, “life style centers,” a “Grand Central Station” in San Francisco for a rail line that doesn’t exist, and the like. (More “infrastructure priorities are listed here.) That is, the mayors have, in a recession and what is widely acknowledged as a crisis in infrastructure, presented the taxpayers with a gold-plated wish list. No doubt Congress would be happy to pony up the money in exchange for naming rights.
Why are these projects even on the list? For several reasons. First, they’re discrete and local. Highway, airport, and major transit projects often require consultation with and the involvement of multiple authorities, making it harder for the spending to have a quick impact — even if its long-term effect would outweigh that of a duck pond by a factor of, oh, infinity. Another reason might be the “spaghetti” approach: throw it at the wall to see if it sticks. No harm in trying, right? ask the mayors. (No harm, indeed, except perhaps the derision of a few lowly bloggers.)
We also strive for “fairness” in our infrastructure spending — at the expense of urgent needs. States with less urgent infrastructure needs have senators and congressmen angling for advantage regardless. Seattle, for example, is highly congested, but state and federal legislators don’t want to allocate money to the Seattle area, home to half the state’s population, unless their parts of the state get their fair share. This partially explains why marginal interstate projects like I-82 between Ellensburg, Wash., and Umatilla, Ore., get built before big highway expansions in the Puget Sound area. This princple extends to aviation, too: in Aviation Infrastructure Performance, Cliff Winston and Gines de Rus write that “the majority of [Airport Improvement Program] funds are allocated to airports that account for a small share of commercial enplanements.” In 1996, thirty-one airports accounting for 67 percent of scheduled commercial enplanements received only 24 percent of AIP funds — a smaller share than general aviation reliever airports that handled no commercial passenger traffic!
Given that the mayors have a clearly distorted view of infrastructure priorities, Poole suggests that the private sector can help determine what projects should top the list. Figure out what kind of projects would attract private capital — then fund those first. Investors are (not always, but generally) cautious about pouring money into Mickey Mouse infrastructure projects. Private capital builds the sensible (and frugal) Branson Airport (which had its first commercial service announced today); it doesn’t build the twice-as-expensive and soon-to-lose-commercial-service MidAmerica St. Louis Airport.
This is not to say that the public sector should not be involved in infrastructure spending. It should be. This has been a core government function since the earliest days of the American republic. But we seem unable to prioritize and optimize our spending. The government has failed to keep up. We need to look at different ways of responding to and meeting our most urgent transportation infrastructure needs.