More Money Won’t Fix U.S. Infrastructure If We Don’t Change How It’s Spent

Milwaukee's Marquette Interchange, which cost $810 million to construct, sits practically empty during daylight hours.
Milwaukee’s Marquette Interchange is a beast that cost $810 million to build. If this is how state DOTs spend their money, existing infrastructure will continue to crumble. Photo: HNTB

“America’s infrastructure is slowly falling apart” went the headline of a recent Vice Magazine story that epitomizes a certain line of thinking about how to fix the nation’s “infrastructure crisis.” The post showed a series of structurally deficient bridges and traffic-clogged interchanges intended to jolt readers into thinking we need to spend more on infrastructure.

The idea that decrepit roads are caused by a lack of money is widespread. Vox‘s Matt Yglesias recently argued that the nation should borrow a bunch of money at low interest rates now and invest in an “infrastructure surge” that would help put idled construction workers back to work. Liberal crusader Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill in the Senate to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next five years.

States have been shirking their maintenance responsibilities in favor of building expensive new projects. Image: Smart Growth America
States have been shirking their maintenance responsibilities in favor of building expensive new projects. Graphic: Smart Growth America

It’s true that a surge of investment could be very helpful in building modern, high-capacity transit systems in American cities, or in constructing high-speed rail links between major metros. It’s also true that the federal gas tax has been eroded by inflation for more than 20 years, so tens of billions of dollars in general fund revenue has been diverted to transportation spending since 2008.

But throwing more money at the problem overlooks the fatal flaw in American transportation infrastructure policy: The system is set up to funnel the vast majority of spending through state departments of transportation, and those agencies have an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to making smart long-term decisions. As long as state DOTs retain unfettered control of the money, potholed roads and decrepit bridges will remain the norm.

That’s because the sorry state of American transportation infrastructure is mainly the result of wasteful spending choices, not a lack of funding.

State DOTs’ lack of fiscal discipline is nothing short of criminal. The chart on the right, courtesy of Smart Growth America, shows how states divided spending between new construction and maintenance from 2004 to 2008. States used most of their money — 57 percent — on new construction (projects like that massive but oddly empty interchange in Milwaukee, above, don’t come cheap). Meanwhile, states used the 43 percent left over to maintain the remaining 98.7 percent of road infrastructure. This is a recipe for ruin.

If you think that states have felt chastised in the last few years, think again. Here’s a chart from the Minneapolis Star Tribune showing how Minnesota DOT divides its money between maintenance and new construction:

The state of Minnesota's transportation spending is unsustainable, not because of the sheer amount but because of the way it's being spent.
The state of Minnesota’s transportation spending is unsustainable, and not because the state lacks revenue. Image: Star Tribune

Doubling federal transportation spending wouldn’t solve this problem. Pumping billions of additional dollars into state DOTs without reforming the current system could actually make it worse — giving agencies license to spend lavishly on new projects that serve only to increase their massive maintenance backlogs.

new report from the Center for American Progress finds that 50 percent of existing roads don’t carry enough traffic to generate gas taxes sufficient to pay for their own maintenance. While raising the gas tax might change the equation for some of these roads, the level of subsidy is disturbing. The last thing we need is more money-losing roads to maintain.

The Vice story — the one that’s supposed to scare us into approving funding for transportation — is actually a catalog of tremendous waste. The magazine cites Seattle’s dangerously destabilized Alaskan Way Viaduct — an elevated highway — as an example of decay, then notes that at least $2 billion has been dumped into building the most expensive possible solution to that problem: an underground highway.

Seattle and the state of Washington could have selected a much cheaper alternative — tearing down the aging elevated highway, replacing it with an at-grade boulevard and better transit options. Studies by the city actually found the surface transit solution would have moved as many people as the tunnel at a fraction of the price. But the region’s politicians and transportation authorities chose the high-cost, high-risk path, and they may end up with nothing to show for it.

Vice also points to Cincinnati’s aging Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River. But is money the answer, or does Ohio just need to make better use of the funds at its disposal? Elsewhere in the Cincinnati region, Ohio DOT has insisted on building a $1.4 billion highway to the eastern suburbs despite widespread opposition from the communities it’s supposed to serve.

There are similar stories in most states — DOTs willing to break the bank on gold-plated highway flyovers designed to shave 40 seconds off a half-hour commute, while neglecting important bridges and other assets that present real risks.

One voice of reason has been civil engineer Chuck Marohn, who’s had to dodge threats from his peers because he challenged the orthodoxy that more infrastructure is always the answer. As he put it in a recent post on his Strong Towns blog: “American prosperity is not simply a function of how many roads, pipes and hunks of metal we can construct. Our infrastructure investments must work to support the American people, not the other way around.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the CAP report found that only 50 percent of new roads carry enough traffic to generate revenues sufficient to cover their maintenance. The statistic actually applies to existing roads. 

  • RGuinart

    OK, in defense of SDOTs, allow me to submit the following for consideration:
    1. That Smart Growth report makes some funky assumptions (Appendix A) and may be seriously over-reporting spending on “expansion”. It is safe to assume, based on what I have read, that about 40% of all spending the feds call “capital outlay” is for rehab and repair. That’s because most roads that get widened get reconstructed at the same time. This would bring Texas numbers for expansion vs repair, for instance, within about 10% of each other if considered as a percentage of all capital spending.

    2. Also, a significant portion of $$$ that seems to go to SDOTs is actually allocated by local agencies and MPOs through regularly updated agreements with the respective SDOT. So, FHWA calculates a state’s yearly obligation authority, and then they apply their own formulas and distribute it to their urban areas, transit districts, etc. Of course the SDOT by law can’t short anyone, but many metro areas enjoy very favorable political and economic positions within the state, and are thus given more control/independence.

  • Tyler

    I’m just curious, does that Marquette Interchange work? I mean, did it deliver what it claimed it would do? It looks like an engineering marvel.

    (I’m setting aside all of the usual negative things… there are many. So, my questions aren’t “Was it worth the money?” or “What neighborhoods did it destroy?”)

  • Ohio just mortgaged its turnpike, rather than generating any new stable source of revenue, took the $1,5 billion and put it ALL into new construction in shrinking northern Ohio. in all, it probably paid for 25 new highway lane miles. Meanwhile, Cleveland had to bond out $100 million to make a few repairs to local roads. ODOT has since flatly refused a request by NE Ohio’s MPO, NOACA, to redirect some of its “TRAC” funding, designed for big projects, to maintenance.

  • Fool

    Wait, they can build that for under a billion dollars and we can’t build a mile of subway?

  • Joe R.

    Speaking of insanely expensive, disruptive projects with little overall impact, back in the 1990s there was serious talk of adding a lane in each direction to the part of the Long Island Expressway within city limits. This plan would have resulted in extensive disruption due to construction. It also would have resulted in many residents losing 10 or 12 feet of their property. Here’s the kicker through-it was only projected to save the average Long Island car commuter 30 seconds each way! Thankfully local opposition defeated it but seriously how can you seriously propose an idea which will have far more downsides than positives. What exactly would these people have done with that extra minute each day? Sometimes even if it’s theoretically possible to do things which save time, the cost of doing those things versus the time saved needs to be weighed. That monstrosity pictured above probably won’t save anyone more than 30 seconds. For the same money you could build up to 5 or 6 miles of subway which cumulatively would save more time overall than that interchange. And it wouldn’t be disruptive once finished.

  • Joe R.

    There never seems to be a shortage of money for grandiose highway projects but people get cold feet even talking about spending tens of millions on “transit nobody uses”, never mind the hundreds of millions or billions a subway costs. Sure, it’s absolutely a case of horribly misplaced priorities, but that’s the state of US politics in 2015.

  • DrunkenOrangetree

    Not enough Republicans in the Cleveland area.

  • RGuinart

    Wow. That’s a shocking set of statistics for any state, let alone one, as you say, that is losing people. If they are losing that much on their revenue-generators and still spending, they must be matching the federal $$ with general revenue or, even worse, bonds. So they will be in even more trouble in the future…

  • They basically borrowed money by leasing the turnpike. I don’t even think they sought a federal match. This is not even an unusual scenario. I’m pretty sure Indiana did the same thing. They sold their turnpike (75 year lease really) for $4 million. They burned through the money in less than 10 years.

  • Froggie

    The Minnesota example is not entirely accurate, because MnDOT factors repaving and reconstruction as “new construction”.

  • Roger Millar

    Smart Growth America’s assumptions were reviewed by an advisory group of former State DOT CEOs and senior staff and found to be valid. The bigger data issue is that the information is not collected or reported in a way that provides transparency as to what is reconstruction and what is adding capacity. All of the expenditure covered by our report was by State DOTs on their systems. We did the best we could with the information available and fully documented our methodology and assumptions.

  • Jacob Lynn

    If repaving and reconstruction count as new construction, what counts as maintenance?

  • Froggie

    Snowplowing is probably the biggest maintenance item. There’s also basic things like guardrail, mowing, signposts (though MnDOT usually contracts out sign replacement separately), emergency repairs, stuff like that…

  • I’d be interested to see your source on that info. You shouldn’t just dispute facts from sources like newspapers and not offer any support of your assertions.

  • That’s not true. If Mn/DOT does an overlay on a highway, it is not considered new construction.

    And a reconstruction where lanes are widened and capacity is added is new construction.

  • mattaudio

    While I indeed share the same skepticism of the definition of “new construction” as Chuck, I can vouch for the fact that Froggie is probably the most knowledgable person regarding the history, future plans, funding, and operations of the road network in the state of Minnesota. Though I’d also like to see sources, Froggie.

  • chairs_missing

    Sounds not unlike the 405 widening we just finished out here in Los Angeles (although I don’t think they had to acquire any private property.)

    Years of painful construction and a billion dollars wasted on a corridor that still desperately needs a subway…

    http://www.scpr.org/blogs/economy/2014/10/10/17413/405-traffic-a-little-slower-after-1-billion-upgrad/

  • C Monroe

    I would have actually had the green line run with the crenshaw line past LAX. Crenshaw line would take over the Greenline spur to the south bay area. Then the green line heads north and splits off from the Crenshaw line and basically follows the 405 through the westside crossing the expo line and purple line, through the pass crossing the orange line up to San Fernando metrolink station. I would also connect the other end of the green line the last mile and a half to the norwalk metrolink station. Basically you would have a huge half loop and you would not need to go to downtown to make all the trips. Eventually you could finish the loop on the eastside of the county.

  • Froggie

    I was using the term that the Strib writer did. MnDOT lumps overlays in with the rest of its “Highway Construction Program”, as noted on their revenue flowchart (last page). I’m not sure where the Strib writer got this $1.1B for “new construction” number from….it doesn’t match up with any of the numbers I’ve seen from MnDOT, whether from the above link or from their financial snapshot from November.

    Regarding maintenance, I’ve seen references that they spent $130 million on snowplowing alone last winter, though I can’t find a link at present.

  • Yeah $130 million matches what I’ve seen too.

  • PhilipGlassRules

    “Shrinking” northern Ohio? The freeways here are very congested. In Akron, mainline interstates narrow down to a single lane in at least four locations. I-271 is only four lanes south of I-480 and is a parking lot every day.

  • Thrig

    I do wonder what you think a highway widening would provide, given the manifest failure of such belt-loosenings to solve obesity, err, congestion over the last 50 years or so. Or what, is there not enough evidence yet for induced demand?

  • RGuinart

    Same story with crime stats and fair housing–no national standards for data integrity

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