Infrastructure spending must look forward

Many economists and politicians are once again peddling the conceit that billions of dollars in infrastructure spending (aka investment) will create new jobs, raise incomes, boost productivity and promote economic growth. After all, a report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a D+ grade and claimed that an investment of $3.6 trillion is needed by 2020.

But before we accept this idea as gospel, we should remember that the future isn’t likely to look like the past.

Americans are reminded that a large part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal to “Save Capitalism in America” was massive federal investments in economic growth projects like rural electrification, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Boulder and Grand Coulee Dams, and other monumental hydroelectric generating facilities. Not to mention hundreds of commercial airports like La-Guardia and JFK in New York City, thousands of modern post offices, schools and courthouses.

The investments culminated in the 41,000-mile Interstate Highway and Defense System, begun in the 1950s under President Eisenhower (the Republican New Dealer”) because of what he had learned from his military experiences leading the allied armies in Europe during World War II.

It is further claimed that Americans have been living off these federal investments ever since. Their contribution to decades of job growth and increasing national prosperity has been so enormous that Americans have come to take them for granted as cost-free gifts from a beneficent God, like the unimaginably bountiful resources of crude oil discovered under that legendary East Texas hill called Spindletop, which came exploding out of the Lucas Number 1 well in 1901 with a roar that shook the world.

The $828 billion stimulus plan President Obama signed in 2009 focused on “shovel-ready” projects like repaving potholed highways and making overdue bridge repairs that could put people to work right away. Still as Gary Johnson noted in 2011, “My neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than the Obama stimulus plan”.

Let’s not kid ourselves, spending for these projects scarcely represented “investment in the future.” Had we been managing infrastructure assets sensibly, they would have been little more than ongoing maintenance activities that should have been funded out of current revenues, like replacing burned-out light bulbs in a factory.

One problem with initiating a massive new capital investment program is figuring out where the dollars to fund it will be found. Projections for escalating federal deficits and skyrocketing debt are bound to raise questions about the federal government’s ability to come up with the necessary cash.

For starters, it’s time to recognize that the future will be quite different from the past, particularly when it comes to transportation infrastructure. Large projects may be rendered obsolete and the burden of stranded fixed costs left to the next generation.

Disruptive technologies such as electric or hybrid, semi-autonomous or self-driving vehicles, and changing consumer preferences, especially among urban millennials who are more interested in the on-demand riding experience than driving, is a cause for optimism about the future of America’s infrastructure condition.

These new patterns of vehicle ownership and use and the emergence of privately funded technologies are changing the way people and goods move, and transforming the transportation industry in both the public and private sectors. They offer the potential for dramatic improvements in traffic congestion (due to improved safety and reduced spacing between vehicles) and reducing motor vehicle accidents and fatalities.

They can also generate environmental gains from smoother traffic flow, promote productivity growth as reduced congestion improves access to labor markets, and improved utilization of transportation assets such as existing highway capacity with higher through put without additional capital investments.

These changes create an opportunity for a new generation of political leaders to present the public with a modern vision for transportation, the economy, and the environment, not one that harks back to an earlier time.

Originally Published: Nov 12, 2016

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