Bridges to Somewhere

Most economists agree that underinvesting in infrastructure is economically unwise and fiscally irresponsible. By that standard, the US, where the federal Highway Transportation Fund is near bankruptcy, has been both reckless and feckless.

BERKELEY – After another round of brinkmanship, a rancorous US Congress passed a last-minute bill to avert the bankruptcy of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), the primary source of federal funding for America’s highway and transit infrastructure. The HTF finances about $50 billion of infrastructure spending a year, and its bankruptcy would have forced state and local governments to shelve thousands of projects, threatening tens of thousands of construction jobs.

The new legislation provides a temporary $11 billion fix that will postpone the HTF’s bankruptcy for about ten months. Through fiscal gimmickry, the bill’s funding costs are pushed beyond the arbitrary ten-year budget window behind which Congress hides to signal its fiscal responsibility. But there is nothing fiscally responsible about this legislation.

Investment in public infrastructure in the US has plunged to less than 2% of GDP, its lowest level since the federal government started tracking these data in 1992. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives a grade of D+ to infrastructure in the United States, reflecting both delayed maintenance and underinvestment. An estimated one out of every nine US bridges is structurally deficient, and 42% of urban roads are congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion a year in wasted time and fuel consumption. Deficient and deteriorating transit systems impose another $90 billion in annual economic costs.

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