In a recent television ad for her network, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow stands below the Hoover Dam and asks whether we are still a country that can "think this big" — Hoover Dam big. The commercial is built on the assumption that American greatness is advanced by federal spending on major infrastructure projects.
If I had my own television commercial, I'd stand in front of the wreckage of Idaho's Teton Dam,which, like the Hoover Dam, was built by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The Teton Dam was based on shoddy engineering and a flawed economic analysis. It collapsed catastrophically in 1976, just a year after it was built.
Increased infrastructure spending has bipartisan support in Washington these days. President Obama wants a new federal infrastructure bank, and members of both parties want to pass big highway and air-traffic-control funding bills. The politicians think these bills will create desperately needed jobs, but the cost of that perceived benefit is too high: Federal infrastructure spending has a long and painful history of pork-barrel politics and bureaucratic bungling, with money often going to wasteful and environmentally damaging projects.
For plenty of examples of the downside of federal infrastructure, look at the two oldest infrastructure agencies — the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. Their histories show that the federal government shouldn't be in the infrastructure business. Rather, state governments and the private sector are best equipped to provide it.
The Corps of Engineers has been building levees, canals and other civilian water infrastructure for more than 200 years — and it has made missteps the entire time. In the post-Civil War era, for example, there were widespread complaints about the Corps' wastefulness and mismanagement. A 1971 book by Arthur Morgan, a distinguished engineer and former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, concluded: "There have been over the past 100 years consistent and disastrous failures by the Corps in public works areas ... resulting in enormous and unnecessary costs to ecology [and] the taxpayer."
Some of the highest-profile failures include the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. That disaster dramatically proved the shortcomings of the Corps' approach to flood control, which it had stubbornly defended despite outside criticism. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was like a dreadful repeat. The flooding was in large part a man-made disaster stemming from poor engineering by the Corps and misdirected funding by Congress.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation has been building economically dubious and environmentally harmful dams since 1902. Right from the start, "every Senator ... wanted a project in his state; every Congressman wanted one in his district; they didn't care whether they made economic sense or not," concluded Marc Reisner in his classic history of the agency, Cadillac Desert. The dam-building pork barrel went on for decades, until the agency ran out of rivers into which it could pour concrete.
Looking at the Corps and Reclamation, the first lesson about federal infrastructure projects is that you can't trust the cost-benefit analyses. Both agencies have a history of fudging their studies to make proposed projects look better, understating the costs and overstating the benefits.
And we've known it, too. In the 1950s, Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Ill.), lambasted the distorted analyses of the Corps and Reclamation. According to Reisner, Reclamation's chief analyst admitted that in the 1960s he had to "jerk around" the numbers to make one major project look sound and that others were "pure trash" from an economics perspective. In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter ripped into the "computational manipulation" of the Corps. And in 2006, the Government Accountability Office found that the Corps' analyses were "fraught with errors, mistakes, and miscalculations, and used invalid assumptions and outdated data."
Even if federal agencies calculate the numbers properly, members of Congress often push ahead with "trash" projects anyway. Then-senator Christopher Bond of Missouri vowed to make sure that the Corps' projects in his state were funded, no matter what the economic studies concluded, according to extensive Washington Post reporting on the Corps in 2000. And the onetime head of the Senate committee overseeing the Corps, George Voinovich of Ohio, blurted out at a hearing: "We don't care what the Corps cost-benefit is. We're going to build it anyhow because Congress says it's going to be built."
As Morgan noted in his 1971 book, these big projects have often damaged both taxpayers and ecology. The Corps, Reisner argues, has "ruined more wetlands than anyone in history" with its infrastructure. Meanwhile, Reclamation killed wetlands and salmon fisheries as it built dams to provide high-cost irrigation water to farmers in the West — so they could grow crops that often compete with more efficiently grown crops in the East.
Taxpayers are double losers from all this infrastructure. They paid to build it, and now they are paying to clean up the environmental damage. In Florida, for example, the Corps' projects, along with federal sugar subsidies, have damaged the Everglades. So the government is helping to fund a multibillion-dollar restoration plan. In the West, federal irrigation has increased salinity levels in rivers, necessitating desalination efforts such as a $245 millionplant in Yuma, Ariz. And in a large area of California's San Joaquin Valley, federal irrigation has created such toxic runoff that the government is considering spending up to $2 billion to fix the damage, according to some estimates.
When the federal government "thinks big," it often makes big mistakes. And when Washington follows bad policies, such as destroying wetlands or overbuilding dams, it replicates the mistakes across the nation. Today, for instance, Reclamation's huge underpricing of irrigation water is contributing to a water crisis across much of the West.
Similar distortions occur in other areas of infrastructure, such as transportation. The federal government subsidizes the construction of urban light-rail systems, for example, which has caused these systems to spring up across the country. But urban rail systems are generally less efficient and flexible than bus systems, and they saddle cities with higher operating and maintenance costs down the road. Similar misallocation of investment occurs with Amtrak; lawmakers make demands for their districts, and funding is sprinkled across the country, even to rural areas where passenger rail makes no economic sense because of low population densities.
When the federal government is paying for infrastructure, state officials and members of Congress fight for their shares of the funding, without worrying too much about efficiency, environmental issues or other longer-term factors. The solution is to move as much infrastructure funding as we can to the state, local and private levels. That would limit the misallocation of projects by Congress, while encouraging states to experiment with lower-cost solutions. It's true that the states make infrastructure mistakes as well, as California appears to be doing by subsidizing high-speed rail. But at least state-level mistakes aren't automatically repeated across the country.
The states should be the laboratories for infrastructure. We should further encourage their experiments by bringing in private-sector financing. If we need more highway investment, we should take notes from Virginia, which raised a significant amount of private money to widen the Beltway. If we need to upgrade our air-traffic-control system, we should copy the Canadian approach and privatize it so that upgrades are paid for by fees on aviation users. If Amtrak were privatized, it would focus its investment where it is most needed — the densely populated Northeast.
As for Reclamation and the Corps, many of their infrastructure projects would be better managed if they were handed over to the states. Reclamation's massive Central Valley irrigation project, for example, should be transferred to the state of California, which is better positioned to make cost and environmental trade-offs regarding contentious state water issues. Other activities of these two agencies could be privatized, such as hydropower generation and the dredging of seaports.
The recent infrastructure debate has focused on job creation, and whether projects are "shovel ready." The more important question is who is holding the shovel. When it's the federal government, we've found that it digs in the wrong places and leaves taxpayers with big holes in their pockets. So let's give the shovels to state governments and private companies. They will create just as many jobs while providing more innovative and less costly infrastructure to the public. They're ready.
This article appeared in The Washington Post on October 21, 2011.