Infrastructure Yes; Federal Deficits NO!

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) will surely benefit if the federal government were to spend a trillion or three dollarson infrastructure. So it is no surprise that its latest infrastructure report card says the nation needs to spend not one, not three, but four-and-a-half trillion dollars on infrastructure.

Yet there is no reason for the federal government to get involved in any of the infrastructure needs claimed by ASCE. In fact, the potential for federal spending on infrastructure is probably doing more harm than good since other people aren’t doing what they should be doing because they are counting on, or at least hoping for, the floodgates of federal funding to open.

Here are some of the most important infrastructure needs identified in the ASCE report:

  • Transit gets the lowest grade of any of ASCE’s infrastructure categories. Not coincidentally, transit is the most tax-dependent and gets more federal subsidies of any of the other infrastructure categories.
  • Railroads get ASCE’s highest grade. They also happen to be the least subsidized, being almost entirely private. Will anyone learn this lesson about private vs. public ownership of other infrastructure.
  • Aviation–ASCE frets about airport congestion but fails to mention the best solution: privatizing the airports and upgrading air traffic control systems, neither of which need new federal dollars.
  • Bridges–ASCE fails to observe that, without an increase in federal spending, the number of bridges that are structurally deficient has steadily declined from 124,000 in 1990 to 56,000 today, so ASCE’s C+ grade should really be a B+.
  • Roads–ASCE says roads are in pretty good shape but heavily congested. It doesn’t say that much of that congestion can be attributed to the diversion of highway user fees to transit and other non-highway programs. Ending the diversions will do more than ASCE’s proposals to raise gas taxes, as higher taxes will just be an excuse for more diversions.
  • Dams–Only 2.4 percent of the nation’s dams are in bad shape, but ASCE somehow grades them a D. It is likely that most of the dams that ASCE says are in poor shape are locally owned, so the only role for the federal government should be as safety monitor, if that.
  • Drinking water–Flint aside, local governments have adequately handled drinking water. If those governments would stick to their core responsibilities, and not do stupid things like spend $500 a square foot building LEEDs public buildings and $160 million a mile on light rail, there would be plenty of money for water.
  • Energy–ASCE says most electrical transmission lines are old, but they are also mostly private. Let the private companies take care of them.
  • Parks–ASCE says parks have a huge maintenance backlog, at least some of which is for facilities, such as employee housing, that are really unnecessary. At least ASCE agrees that the solution is to increase user fees, not spending out of tax dollars.
  • Ports–ASCE says the federal government needs to dredge more channels to handle larger ships. Dredging and harbors is one of the oldest forms of federal pork barrel, and it’s no more justified today than it was 150 years ago.

In general, the ASCE report reveals that, the more that things are funded by users rather than taxpayers (or deficits), the better condition they are in. Thus, ASCE’s numerous recommendations for more federal involvement may actually worsen the condition of our infrastructure.

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7 thoughts on “Infrastructure Yes; Federal Deficits NO!

  1. EngineerMike

    Excellent, Randall.

    Your review of ASCE’s often clueless recommendations, deserves an ‘A’.

    Interestingly, ASCE has paid absolutely no attention to FTA’s rating and ranking process for major fixed guideway projects. Under Obama’s totally clueless FTA Administrators, the once-excellent New Starts evaluation process has been gutted; that way, all projects with lots of political push behind them, will always get perfect scores and get the gelt.

    Mike

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    ASCE says roads are in pretty good shape but heavily congested. It doesn’t say that much of that congestion can be attributed to the diversion of highway user fees to transit and other non-highway programs. Ending the diversions will do more than ASCE’s proposals to raise gas taxes, as higher taxes will just be an excuse for more diversions.

    Has there ever been a formal analysis of how much more could be invested in the highway system if not for diversion of highway user fees (generally motor fuel taxes as well as tolls in many states)? One of the primary claims that I hear often is that spending tax and toll dollars on transit will provide highway congestion relief, but that is frequently incorrect.

    Perhaps the most-egregious case of diversion in one state are Pennsylvania’s Act 44 and Act 89, which have required the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) to contribute billions of dollars since 2007 to transportation projects having little or nothing to do with the Turnpike’s network of toll highways (since 2013, those dollars have been sent to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to be spent on “transit capital, operating, multi-modal and other non-highway programs”).

    Tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike go up every year, and most of the increase is related to legislative mandates to divert PTC dollars (currently $450 million a year) to PennDOT.

  3. Sandy Teal

    While I like user fees as an indication of what people really want, it is a terrible way to fund many public land recreation activities because agencies will spend more than 50% of the user fee to collect the user fees.

    It isn’t bad to pay to enter Yellowstone or Yosemite National Parks, where there are just a few entry points and people will going in will spend a lot of time there. Certainly the $20 per car charge is cheap compared to gas and all the other charges to use the Park.

    But fees are terrible for the public lands that get lots of intermittent use. The locals buy cheap season passes and way underpay for the recreation, while visitors vastly overpay and many just forego using the public land because of the high marginal charge and hassle. But mostly the agency has to spend lots of money to have people to collect the fees and to enforce rule breakers, so the net gain is small.

    On the other hand, if you leave it up to public land agencies, they will spend tons of money to build a remote trail that few use and refuse to pick up garbage or provide restrooms where most of the people are. What does the public want? — restrooms and garbage service. What do agencies want? — cool trails and fancy eco-friendly devices that win awards from colleagues. The user fees keep the agencies connected to the public.

  4. Sketter

    @C.P.
    Interesting that you mention SEPTA, being that during the SEPTA union strike commuting in the region took 2-3 times longer than normal and I can’t even imagine what it would have been like if the regional rail workers had been on strike too.

  5. Frank

    “While I like user fees as an indication of what people really want, it is a terrible way to fund many public land recreation activities because agencies will spend more than 50% of the user fee to collect the user fees.

    Except not. Not even close. Sandy Teal continues to make things up.

    “20 percent of recreation fee revenue was spent on operations and administrative activities such as law enforcement, cost of collecting fees, and visitor reservation services.”

    In other words, the cost to collect user fees is NOWHERE NEAR 50%. It’s not even 20%.

    “But mostly the agency has to spend lots of money to have people to collect the fees and to enforce rule breakers, so the net gain is small.”

    Sandy Teal. Srsly. You know your claims are easily refuted by a very quick Google search by someone who actually worked for the NPS. Right? I just don’t understand the need to continually make things up.

    Seriously. Stop.

  6. Sandy Teal

    Hey Frank. Don’t be such a jerk, and don’t fall for agency propaganda like a high school essay writer.

    The NPS is not every agency. And their budget “numbers” are the NPS operating budget categories — not real numbers that mean much. They do not include many law enforcement costs like magistrates and US Attorneys. They do not include capital costs as most roads, visitor centers and many campgrounds are built with funding not counted.

    The overall number hides instances where costs exceed 50%, especially in off-peak times, off season and minor attractions. In fact, agencies often charge group rates and bundled guided tours 50% of the public fee to reflect the lesser cost of collecting the fees.

    And Frankly, don’t be a jerk.

  7. Frank

    “Hey Frank. Don’t be such a jerk, and don’t fall for agency propaganda like a high school essay writer.”

    Please stop making stuff up and stop tone policing me and my tone might improve. You NEVER link to sources to back your claims. Try it. If you want to present reliable evidence that shows that “agencies will spend more than 50% of the user fee to collect the user fees” that’d be great. I’ve presented you reliable evidence from a reputable source about one federal agency that collects fees that you have tried to dismiss as “propaganda” without offering any evidence of your own. Super weak.

    I’d love to see your published and reliable evidence.

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