The Realities of Government Infrastructure

May 22, 2013

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. 

Arlington County recently spent $1 million for a single bus stop, and the structure doesn’t even shelter passengers from wind or rain. The stop is one of 24 along a planned streetcar route, which is a mode of transportation that makes no sense in this area. (I understand that the streetcar dream of local politicians is currently on hold in the face of strong citizen opposition). Why is Arlington wasting so much money on these bus stops? Probably because 80 percent of the costs are being paid by state and federal taxpayers, not local taxpayers. 

The Washington Airports Authority has been in the news for mismanagement, overspending, and corruption. The Washington Post has a story today about corruption in contracting by the agency and the complete failure of senior executives to do anything about it. Why the corruption and mismanagement? Because the Authority is a government agency, and worse, it has a monopoly over D.C.-area airports. Airports should be privatized in order to introduce competition, improve service, end corruption, and reduce costs. 

The Washington Post has also done an excellent job covering the Silver Spring Transit Center fiasco. The estimated cost of this grandiose bus/train station has more than quadrupled over time to $120 million. It’s a classic government cost overrun story involving mismanagement, design screw-ups, and contractor failures. A key cause of the problems seems to have been that so many different government agencies were involved that no one had the responsibility or incentive to make needed hard decisions to ensure quality and control costs. Today, fingers of blame are pointing in every direction, and the costs will rise even further as major engineering defects are fixed.   

The grandness of political visions for infrastructure run far ahead of the government’s ability to actually implement projects in an efficient manner. There are types of infrastructure that governments must fund. But more infrastructure should be opened up for private funding, ownership, and control. Private businesses make mistakes, but when they are spending their own money they have strong incentives to control costs, eliminate corruption, and complete quality projects on time—incentives that simply don’t exist in the government sector.    

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