CATO’s Chris Edwards writes:
There is much talk of a second economic “stimulus” bill that would send tens of billions of added federal tax dollars to state governments for infrastructure. Senator Obama recently promised “to put two million more Americans to work, rebuilding our crumbling roads and schools and bridges.”
Is America’s infrastructure really crumbling? Many highways are congested, but at least on the East Coast where I travel, states seem to be continually adding capacity. With schools, the pattern I see is governments building large new structures and knocking down buildings that were built only a few decades ago. When I was a kid I lived for a while in England and went to a school that was about 100 years old, which I thought was kinda cool.
Anyway, if more infrastructure than usual really is crumbling, then governments are doing something wrong because the chart shows that total state and local capital investment is actually up in recent years.
Heritage fellow Ron Utt voices a similar concern:
Many involved in this exercise to increase taxes for transportation see their efforts as timely and urgent. But aggressive efforts by the business community and state and local officials to tap into the federal treasury to fund local transportation projects are as old as the republic, and they are no more sensible today than they were two centuries ago.
Despite the national attention it has received, much of the current debate on infrastructure is simply wrong, and it may very well be more wrongheaded today than at any time in the past two centuries. More to the point, as any list of infrastructure “needs” and “problems” reveals, nearly all troubled areas can be described as those where government owns and operates the means of production. In effect, what Americans now confront is a problem familiar to the citizens of Bulgaria and Belarus: The crisis of socialism.
Edwards and Utt have similar policy prescriptions. Edwards writes:
How much spending on items such as highways and airports is the correct amount? I don’t know, and neither do politicians in Washington. The way to find out is to privatize as much infrastructure as we can and let entrepreneurs raise the financing and develop the innovative solutions that they are so good at.
and from Utt:
The difference between the two sectors—public and private—is the real American infrastructure story: Our infrastructure is deficient only in areas where we rely on an economic system that the rest of world (save places like Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea) abandoned two decades ago. With the reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program still more than a year away, there will be plenty more opportunities for learned journals to explore this more important aspect of America’s bipolar world of infrastructure dysfunction. In the meantime, Congress and the White House should be looking for responsible ways to begin the process of shifting more infrastructure responsibility from the public to the private sector.