By Randal O’Toole – Senior Fellow, Cato Institute
The Infrastructure Crisis: An Overview
The most important thing to understand about the infrastructure crisis is that there is no infrastructure crisis. All of the talk about collapsing bridges and crumbling highways is simply a ruse to persuade Congress to spend hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars, most of it not on repairs but on new infrastructure we don’t need and mostly won’t use.
This may seem hard to believe for people who have seen photos of collapsed bridges in Minnesota and Washington state and who may have to dodge potholes every time they drive. Yet the fact is that America’s highways and roadway bridges are in very good to excellent condition, and their condition is improving each year. Neither the Minnesota nor the Washington bridges fell down because they were worn out or poorly maintained. One failed due to a design flaw; the other because an oversized vehicle that should not have been on the bridge tried to cross it.
In fact, the United States has not seen a roadway bridge failure due to poor maintenance since 1989. Bridge failures in that decade led the Federal Highway Administration to require the states to do an annual structural evaluation of all roadway bridges. The first such evaluation in 1992 found 125,000 bridges, or 20 percent of the total, were in poor or structurally deficient condition. Efforts to fix the problem reduced this to 52,000 bridges, or 8.5 percent of the total, by 2019. At this rate of decline, in another 18 years or so, there won’t be any left. None of the 52,000 are in immediate danger of collapse, so there is no need for Congress to pass a giant infrastructure bill.
Nor are our highways crumbling. While a street near your home may have some potholes in it, the average roughness of all of our major roads has declined steadily for the past several decades. Less rough pavement means fewer potholes and smoother rides. This doesn’t mean the potholes you drive around are imaginary. A close look at bridge and pavement data reveals a pattern: Infrastructure that is paid for out of user fees is in the best shape. Infrastructure that is paid for out of tax dollars tends to be worse off. Just 3 percent of toll bridges, for example, are in poor shape along with 5 percent of state-owned bridges that are funded out of gasoline taxes. But 12 percent of city- and county-owned bridges, which are mostly paid for out of property taxes or other general funds, are in poor shape.
Fund Infrastructure Maintenance, Not Construction
Public agencies and private entities that are funded out of their own revenues have strong incentives to keep the resources that produce those revenues in good condition. When infrastructure is funded out of tax dollars, however, it depends on politicians to allocate the dollars to maintain it—and those politicians would rather spend money on glamourous new projects than on maintenance.
Around half the streets in the city of Portland, Oregon, for example, are in poor condition. Yet the Portland city council has decided it is more important to build streetcar lines, which earn the city national attention, than to maintain the streets. As one U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) official says, politicians would rather cut ribbons than push brooms.
If local bridges and streets are in relatively poor condition, even worse is the nation’s transit systems, which in pre-COVID-19 times depended on tax revenues for 78 percent of their budgets. According to a 2019 DOT report, the transit industry has a $100 billion maintenance backlog, mainly its rail infrastructure. Instead of fixing this backlog, most transit agencies are using what dollars they can get from the federal government and local taxpayers to build more rail infrastructure that they won’t be able to afford to maintain.
Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), for example, has a $3 billion maintenance backlog and needs to spend close to $500 million a year on maintenance just to keep its infrastructure from deteriorating any further. Yet it spends only about $100 million a year on maintenance even as it dedicated $2.3 billion to a new, 4.4-mile light-rail line.
Most rail transit was rendered obsolete more than 90 years ago by buses. Using the same amount of land as a light-rail line, buses can move more people faster, more safely, and to more destinations at a far lower cost. They can also move as many or more people as any subway or elevated line, though to do so they may require more land (which is abundant in the United States).
The DOT says the transit backlog is growing but could be cleared up in a few years if transit agencies were to spend the money now being spent on new construction on rehabilitation instead. So, transit’s maintenance backlog isn’t an infrastructure crisis as much as it is a problem of properly allocating funds that are already available.
Since buses have made rail transit functionally obsolete, any U.S. transit agency that builds new rail lines is wasting its taxpayers’ money. Rather than spend money on rehabilitation, many existing lines should be replaced by buses as they wear out, reducing the backlog even faster.
Planes, Not Trains, and Automobiles
Funding transportation out of user fees not only ensures better maintenance; it also encourages more efficient and innovative transportation. Tax subsidies shield Amtrak and urban transit agencies from the need to be efficient, innovative, or responsive to competition. Amtrak spends four times as much money moving a passenger one mile as the airlines; urban transit spends five times as much moving a passenger-mile as private automobiles.
Any infrastructure bill should focus on the kinds of transportation that people actually use, rather than what we wish they would use, and it should fund transportation facilities primarily out of user fees, not tax dollars. Unfortunately, this is not what “Amtrak Joe” Biden and a Democrat-led Congress are intent on doing. Instead, they want to spend vast amounts of money building new but obsolete infrastructure that few people will use. A prime example is high-speed rail, which may look modern but in fact was rendered obsolete in the 1950s when Boeing introduced the 707 and Douglas the DC-8.
Not only are planes several times faster than the fastest high-speed trains, planes also don’t require huge amounts of expensive infrastructure that must be precisely built and maintained. The need for such infrastructure makes high-speed trains economically uncompetitive with airlines, which can take people from Los Angeles to San Francisco for less than $40 and from New York to Chicago for less than $60.
Countries that have built high-speed rail lines have gone deeply into debt, sometimes enough to threaten their entire economies. Japan’s government was forced to absorb the $285 billion debt of the country’s state railroad in 1987, which contributed to that nation’s lost decade of economic stagnation. Building 22,000 miles of high-speed rail lines helped put China’s state railway nearly $850 billion in debt. This growing debt has led China to slow its rail construction. Meanwhile, China has built 93,000 miles of expressways, about 40 percent more than are found in the United States, and China is building about 5,000 more miles per year, compared with fewer than 800 in the United States. Unlike the high-speed rail lines, China’s expressways are paying for themselves out of tolls.
A true high-speed rail network in the United States would cost between $1 trillion and $3 trillion. Unlike the Interstate Highway System, whose half trillion-dollar cost was paid out of highway user fees, none of the cost of high-speed rail construction would be paid for out of ticket revenues. While the Interstate Highway System carries about 20 percent of all passenger travel and 20 percent of all ton-miles of freight shipped in the United States, a high-speed rail network would be lucky to carry 5 percent of passenger travel and no freight.
Considering that the federal government is already $28 trillion in debt, high-speed rail is exactly the kind of money pit we don’t need. This is especially so considering the $12 billion spent by the Obama administration on high-speed rail produced almost no benefits.
The Infrastructure We Need Right Now
The pandemic will make people reluctant to use any form of mass transportation in the future. It has also demonstrated the need for a resilient transportation system, and the most resilient system we have is motor vehicles and highways. Instead of trying to get people out of their cars, a policy that has never succeeded, Congress should adopt policies that make automobiles and highways cleaner, more efficient, and more resilient. Since highways can and should be paid for out of user fees, such policies will produce a better transportation system that will not add to the federal debt or impose more costs on state and local taxpayers.
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Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need.