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.