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Transportation Infrastructure: Moving America

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
February 24, 2009
This publication is now archived.


Transportation experts view the call for dramatic federal government action in response to the economic crisis as an opportunity to overhaul the U.S. system of highways, bridges, railways, and mass transit. A series of sobering report cards from the American Society of Civil Engineers documents the inadequacy of this system. President Barack Obama took office pledging to act; his February 2009 stimulus package provides nearly $50 billion for transportation infrastructure. But many experts look beyond the stimulus and call for shifts in longer-term policy that will fundamentally alter the approach to planning and funding infrastructure and bolster U.S. competitiveness, quality of life, and security. In the past, the United States has revamped its transportation infrastructure to build canals, transcontinental railways, and a federal highway system, in each case helping usher in periods of economic growth.


A State of Disrepair

A January 2009 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers on infrastructure, much of it involving the transportation sector, concluded: "all signs point to an infrastructure that is poorly maintained, unable to meet current and future demands, and in some cases, unsafe." It found that aviation, transit, and roads, already rated abysmal four years ago, had declined even further. Lost time from road congestion, the report estimated, was costing the economy more than $78 billion dollars a year while nearly half of U.S. households still had no access to bus or rail transit.

At the same time, national spending on infrastructure is often depicted as a faulty, wasteful process. Annual federal spending on transportation infrastructure in recent years has averaged more than $60 billion, and billions have been spent since 9/11 on aviation security. The Congressional Research Service cites Transportation Department data showing that the number of structurally deficient bridges was cut nearly in half between 1990 and 2007 due to federal spending. But 2006 Federal Highway Administration statistics also showed that more than 70,000 bridges, about 12 percent of the total, were structurally deficient. Among them was the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed in August 2007, a mishap that killed thirteen people and spawned new debate about the focus and level of U.S. infrastructure spending.

"All signs point to an infrastructure that is poorly maintained, unable to meet current and future demands, and in some cases, unsafe." – American Society of Civil Engineers

There is a further homeland security dimension, says CFR Senior Fellow Stephen E. Flynn. He refers to the current state of U.S. infrastructure as the "soft underbelly" of the nation's security. "This is a core vulnerability for U.S. society," Flynn told a January 2009 CFR meeting. "It's very costly, after things fall apart, to try to put them back together again. And so, as I would forecast more generally in the twenty-first century, infrastructure is going to be [an] appealing target" to terrorists. Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has also expressed concern about the federal government's failure to make long-term infrastructure investments to overcome degradation of roads, bridges, dams, and other such "common goods."

Many experts say transportation infrastructure spending over the past several decades has failed to keep pace with the increasing burden absorbed by the country's roadways, bridges, and mass transit networks. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office shows that spending for infrastructure relative to gross domestic product (GDP) declined about 20 percent (PDF) from 1959 to 2004. A number of experts also point to flaws in the manner of funding and planning U.S. infrastructure. Part of that involves abuses in the congressional earmarking process, epitomized by Alaska's so-called Bridge to Nowhere, a once-approved plan, later cancelled, for federal funding to build a $200 million bridge to a remote island.

Another serious problem is coordination between different forms of transportation, experts say. Congress aligns transportation funding with specific modes like highways, rail, and mass transit. It sought to improve coordination between these modes through legislation originating with the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. But the legislation did little to alter the congressional appropriations approach, the Government Accountability Office, a government watchdog body, found in a 2007 report (PDF). "As a result," the report says, "there is little assurance that projects, including intermodal projects--which could most efficiently meet the nation's mobility needs--will be selected and funded." The failure to achieve such coordination, note Brookings Institution experts Bruce Katz and Robert Puentes, leaves the United States as "one of the few industrialized countries that fails to link aviation, highways, freight rail, mass transit, and passenger rail networks."

Stimulus and Transportation

During the country's greatest economic crisis, the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal was responsible for a series of iconic public works projects, notable among them the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, and the Tennessee Valley Authority rural electrification effort. No less important were "thousands of railroad grade crossings, parkways, trails in the national parks," writes historian Bruce Seely in the Wilson Quarterly. "Public-works relief funding from the federal government finally broke fiscal logjams."

The 2009 stimulus package is more modest, with its supporters stressing the need for speed in creating jobs as opposed to longer-term legacy projects, at least initially. The legislation includes roughly $48 billion in transportation infrastructure spending, including $29 billion for highway projects, $8.4 billion for public transportation, and $9.3 billion for inter-city rail, including up to $8 billion for high-speed rail service.

Many of the funds will be disbursed under normal formulas. State governments will receive funding for roads and bridges, and funds for public transit will go to local and regional agencies. The Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders have stressed there are no earmarks in the bill; by contrast, the current federal surface transportation authorization bill that expires in September 2009 has more than 6,000 earmarks.

The United States is "one of the few industrialized countries that fails to link aviation, highways, freight rail, mass transit and passenger rail networks." – The Brookings Institution

Still, the allotment for high-speed rail has piqued the interest of transportation experts. Most of the extra funding was inserted at the last moment by the Obama administration, signaling the new president's commitment to a form of transport in which the United States is seen as lagging far behind states like France, Germany, parts of coastal China, and Japan. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has sixty days to prepare a strategic plan for the funds and has the discretion to give "priority to projects that support the development of inter-city high-speed rail service," Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told Politico.

But some experts stress the need for realistic expectations about how such a system can function in the United States. "I'm not convinced high-speed rail is the answer to some people's prayers, because the geography of the United States is different than Europe," says William J. Mallett, a specialist in transportation policy at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. "It may make sense in certain places--the Northeast Corridor, California, Chicago. A high-speed rail network that covers the whole country is probably not feasible" due to the dispersed nature of the U.S. population, he says.

Yet overall, the stimulus spending directed at transportation will be helpful in starting to address some of the country's infrastructure shortcomings, says the Brookings Institution's Puentes. "From a lot of indicators, this does seem a step in the right direction," he said. "At the end of the day, it could have been a lot worse."

The exact apportionment of funds will be clear in the months ahead. In December 2008, the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials listed more than 5,100 road and highway projects, $64 billion of which could get underway quickly, and the Association of Public Transit Officials points to more than $12 billion of "ready to go" transit projects.

Obama's stimulus package has aroused debate among economists about the usefulness of large public works projects to spur employment and economic growth. Overall, the 2009 stimulus package includes $120 billion for infrastructure and scientific research and more than $30 billion for infrastructure projects related to energy. Obama administration advisers estimate that construction projects alone could create about 675,000 jobs. Republicans in the House and Senate, nearly all of whom voted against the stimulus measure, have generally acknowledged the need for infrastructure improvements but have faulted the timeliness and targeting of the money in the package. Ronald D. Utt, a senior research fellow for the conservative Heritage Foundation, says it might have been wiser to stimulate employment in the battered financial sector than in major public works projects. "It is highly unlikely that any of these unemployed investment bankers, mortgage brokers, actuaries and bond counsel, and other skilled workers who make the financial system work would instead bang rivets into West Virginia bridges or hang drywall in Chicago schools," he wrote in a February 2009 web memo.

Eisenhower's Example

State and local governments control an estimated 80 percent of infrastructure spending, giving the federal government more of a coordinating role. But there are precedents for the federal government asserting primacy in transportation infrastructure. The last major example was the 1956 legislation creating the Interstate Highway System, which led to the creation of 47,000 miles of highway and more than 55,000 bridges. President Dwight D. Eisenhower saw firsthand the parlous state of the nation's roads when he took part in a 1919 U.S. Army convoy from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. The journey took sixty-two days. As commander of allied forces in World War II, Eisenhower also took note of the efficiency of the German autobahns. As president, Eisenhower presented the highway plan as a national security imperative (the system is known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways).

Eisenhower "gave the rationale for the federal government to essentially put a national system in place where we had really a patchwork quilt of roads," CFR's Flynn told the January 2009 meeting. The effort was funded by a highway trust fund, which received funding primarily through a federal tax on gasoline.

Flynn says security can again be used as a rationale to spur a more coherent, nationally oriented approach to infrastructure. Another panelist at the January 2009 CFR meeting, Everett Ehrlich, a former undersecretary of commerce, said a standardized review of all infrastructure efforts at one federal "checkpoint" would help planners address everything from smoother transit to related concerns such as homeland security and energy efficiency at one time.

Beyond the Stimulus

As a presidential candidate, Obama expressed support for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that would invest $60 billion over ten years for improvements to "maximize our safety and homeland security." The notion of a national bank for infrastructure has gained a number of prominent adherents in recent years, including governors and mayors. A 2007 report commissioned by the Center for Strategic and International Studies called for a bank that would draw together U.S. infrastructure proposals and collect a portfolio of investments to fund them. As described by Ehrlich and a co-chair of the CSIS commission that produced that think tank's report, Felix G. Rohatyn, the National Infrastructure Bank would preserve the system in which state and local governments propose major infrastructure investments, but "would change dramatically the way priorities are set and projects funded" by eliminating the separate programs for highways, airports, and mass transit.

In a similar vein, Puentes of the Brookings Institution calls for establishing a Strategic Transportation Investments Commission. It would focus on maintaining the interstate highway system, developing a national intermodal freight plan, and creating a national plan for passenger travel among metropolitan areas. The political viability of these and numerous other proposals for infrastructure overhaul, including increased use of public-private partnerships, will get a supreme test in the coming months, as Congress is due to reauthorize the 2005 Surface Transportation Extension Act, which expires on September 30, 2009.


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