“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.
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: