The importance of infrastructure investment for U.S. economic growth is widely appreciated. But policy discussions often get sidetracked by a debate regarding the level of federal spending. To spur growth, it is more important to ensure that investment is as efficient as possible and that investment responsibilities are optimally allocated between the federal government, the states, and the private sector.
The sudden collapse of a 58-year-old bridge across the Skagit River in Washington state has led to renewed calls to spend more money on American infrastructure. But if that spending comes out of tax dollars rather than user fees and is dedicated to replacing bridges, it will be seriously misplaced.
Politicians and liberal economists get misty-eyed when thinking about grand infrastructure projects. But recent stories in the Washington Post about D.C.-area projects illustrate the realities of government capital investments.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently said that “America is one big pothole.” President Obama, members of Congress, and pundits often claim that our infrastructure is “crumbling.” The Senate Budget Committee’s new spending plan, for example, uses that word no fewer than ten times in calling for a $100 billion infrastructure package. And in a report released yesterday, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation a grade of D+ on its infrastructure.
The federal government’s budget deficits are pushing the nation toward a fiscal meltdown, yet our leaders can’t seem to curb their zeal for infrastructure spending. President Obama has been pushing a $50 billion package for infrastructure and will likely include a similar plan in his upcoming budget. For their part, most Republicans eagerly pursue all the spending they can get for road, rail, airport, and dam projects in their districts.
Cato has released a new study on infrastructure spending. The study discusses how federal involvement in infrastructure has many serious disadvantages, and few, if any, advantages.
The Washington Post did a great job last week comparing spending earmarks by members of Congress with the locations of property they own in their states. Some members are apparently using our tax dollars to expand infrastructure near their homes and businesses, thus gaining a personal benefit from federal spending.