Why Trump's plan won't fix crumbling infrastructure

For the past decade or so, Americans have been inundated with propaganda about our crumbling infrastructure. Accordin...

Posted: Feb 27, 2018 8:18 AM
Updated: Feb 27, 2018 8:18 AM

For the past decade or so, Americans have been inundated with propaganda about our crumbling infrastructure. According to this narrative, our roads and bridges are falling apart and the only solution is more federal spending.

Earlier this month, the White House released President Donald Trump's long-awaited infrastructure program, which promises to spend $1.5 trillion -- $200 billion from the federal government -- on several new infrastructure programs on top of what governments already spend.

So how much of this money is dedicated to maintaining and restoring crumbling infrastructure? Zero; nada; not one red, white, and blue cent.

The White House says that, unlike some federal programs that are solely dedicated to new construction, the Trump plan allows state and local politicians to decide to spend their share of the funds on either new projects or maintenance. But the plan doesn't guarantee that any of the money will be spent on maintenance.

Where infrastructure is in bad shape, it is because politicians are allowed to decide how to spend infrastructure funds. And, as I have argued elsewhere, some decide to build highly visible new projects rather than maintain existing ones.

That is why Virginia is funding construction of the Silver Line and Maryland the Purple Line rather than rehabilitating the Washington Metro system. That is why New York City is building what the New York Times calls the "most expensive subway in the world" -- a 3.5-mile line between Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal -- rather than rehabilitate its declining subway system. That is why Boston is building a $2.3 billion, 4.3 mile light rail extension to Medford rather than spend the money rehabilitating its creaky rail system.

Although the Trump plan would allow states to spend their share of new infrastructure funds on maintenance, it leaves the decision in the hands of local politicians. They will almost always go for the glitz rather than the routine.

To be fair, the nation's infrastructure isn't in as bad shape as often claimed. We haven't seen a bridge fail due to poor maintenance since 1989, and since then the states have reduced the number of structurally deficient bridges by 60%. The Minneapolis bridge that collapsed in 2007, for example, was found to have failed due to a design flaw that no amount of maintenance could have prevented. Most states and cities are also filling potholes, and the average roughness of most roads has steadily declined for the last two decades.

In general, our state highways, which are funded mainly out of gas taxes, tolls, and other user fees, are in good shape, while local roads, which are funded mainly out of property taxes and sales taxes, are not. Our freight railroads, which are funded mainly through user fees, are in good shape, while Amtrak and urban transit infrastructure that are funded exclusively by tax dollars are not.

Notice a pattern here? Infrastructure that is funded by user fees tends to be in good shape because managers know people will pay less if the infrastructure declines. Infrastructure that is funded by tax dollars is in poor shape because politicians would rather spend money on the next shiny new project than take care of the old ones.

The other advantage of user fees is that they tell us whether new infrastructure is needed. If users are willing to pay for more infrastructure, then it is something we really need that will produce secondary economic benefits. If they aren't willing to pay for it, we probably don't need it and maintaining it will merely be a drag on the economy.

To its credit, the Trump infrastructure plan does allow for some additional user fees. For example, it would allow the states to charge tolls for more interstate highways. This would not only help pay for maintenance and improvements of those highways but relieve congestion, saving Americans billions of dollars a year. But the plan leaves the decision to state politicians, who are unlikely to ask voters to pay tolls when they can pretend to give them something for nothing.

In general, however, not one of the new programs proposed by the Trump infrastructure plan is dedicated solely to maintenance and rehabilitation of crumbling infrastructure. As a result, it is likely that the bulk of this proposed new federal spending will go toward new infrastructure that we may not really need and can't afford to maintain.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 15229

Reported Deaths: 723
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds99925
Lauderdale73561
Madison72023
Scott65012
Neshoba63038
Jones59825
Forrest55338
DeSoto5337
Rankin4217
Leake42112
Holmes39728
Copiah3104
Jackson30513
Attala29216
Yazoo2734
Newton2714
Leflore25831
Harrison2577
Lincoln25628
Monroe25525
Lamar2355
Oktibbeha23512
Lowndes2119
Pearl River20931
Pike20211
Adams19615
Noxubee1856
Wayne1771
Warren1719
Washington1687
Covington1652
Bolivar16011
Jasper1574
Smith15011
Lee1496
Kemper14411
Clarke14318
Chickasaw13312
Lafayette1314
Coahoma1214
Carroll11711
Marion1159
Clay1124
Winston1121
Claiborne1112
Lawrence1021
Simpson1010
Yalobusha905
Hancock9011
Tate891
Grenada893
Wilkinson889
Itawamba877
Union835
Marshall833
Montgomery831
Sunflower813
Jefferson Davis772
Tippah7311
Panola703
Webster691
Calhoun644
Humphreys607
Amite601
Walthall550
Tunica543
Prentiss523
Perry503
Choctaw432
Jefferson421
Tishomingo320
Pontotoc323
Stone300
Franklin282
Tallahatchie271
Quitman260
George251
Alcorn171
Benton150
Greene121
Sharkey70
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 17359

Reported Deaths: 618
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Mobile2191115
Jefferson1780102
Montgomery163238
Tuscaloosa73814
Marshall6879
Franklin5457
Lee54033
Shelby50319
Tallapoosa42364
Butler40217
Chambers35325
Walker3442
Elmore3398
Madison3274
Baldwin2839
Dallas2603
Morgan2511
Etowah24811
DeKalb2433
Lowndes23812
Coffee2291
Sumter2206
Autauga2164
Houston2094
Bullock2034
Pike1980
Colbert1782
Russell1670
Marengo1636
Lauderdale1612
Hale1598
Calhoun1543
Choctaw1518
Barbour1501
Wilcox1447
Clarke1422
Cullman1260
Randolph1257
Marion12111
St. Clair1181
Pickens1114
Dale1100
Talladega1093
Chilton1001
Limestone940
Greene944
Winston880
Covington771
Jackson772
Crenshaw763
Macon754
Henry742
Bibb721
Washington686
Blount611
Escambia573
Lawrence480
Geneva400
Conecuh391
Coosa381
Monroe372
Perry370
Cherokee373
Clay272
Lamar230
Fayette150
Cleburne141
Unassigned00
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