The idea that American infrastructure is in a sorry, even dangerous, state is a fairly common liberal and centrist meme, variously used to explain why China’s better than us and to argue that stimulus spending can be a worthwhile investment without having to get into the actual economic debate about whether and why stimulus works. The idea is repeated in a Washington Post story today on America’s bridges, wherein local politicians are now pleading with the federal government to help them fix the fact that America’s bridges are dangerous and deteriorating. Here’s the problem: They’re not.
There are certainly some number of unsafe bridges in America, but the problem is not getting worse. It’s actually getting better, as Chris Edwards of Cato points out. This chart shows the percentage of American bridges rated “structurally deficient”by the Federal Highway Administration — it’s dropping.
Okay, so but that’s still 10 percent of bridges — 63,000 spans out of about 600,000 bridges in America. Still a crisis, right? Not really.
It sounds scary that 10 percent of America’s bridges are deficient (that’s about 63,000 out about about 600,000), but what does “structurally deficient” actually mean? It doesn’t indicate any particular risk of failure, just that the bridge rates a 4 or below on the FHA’s condition-rating index, which means it has “advanced section loss, deterioration, spalling or scour” or something worse (there’s another ratings system that’s two decades old that they sometimes use, too). But if it’s rated 2, 1, or 0, the bridge is closed or considered for closure. So it’s not clear we’re running serious risks — which is why bridge collapses are really rare.
FHA certainly has an incentive to make it look like they need more projects and more funding, but these numbers are substantially more measured than the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Heritage Action of infrastructure assessors, who give American infrastructure a D+ and — how convenient — say the U.S. needs to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020 on . . . projects that involve civil engineers. (Schools get a D, which is kind of meaningless considering the quality of school infrastructure has almost nothing to do with how well students are educated, so it’s hardly a pressing concern for anyone but civil engineers.)
In any case, this isn’t to say that plenty of America’s infrastructure isn’t in bad shape, or that it wouldn’t make sense to spend money on fixing a lot of it, or building new infrastructure. The point is that American infrastructure isn’t appallingly bad, or dangerously bad, so there’s certainly no reason for the federal government to feel the need to hike taxes nationally to help local governments with their spending priorities.
Rather, we should consider it a national priority to improve our infrastructure if we have ways we can do it that make economic sense — they raise future growth prospects more than they cost, essentially. That may well mean more spending on infrastructure than we do, but not much more, because of the incredibly high costs of building infrastructure in the U.S. If we could do something about those costs, of course, which involves addressing issues with contracting practices, union work rules, and environmental-review burdens, then we might be looking at a lot more infrastructure projects that would be worth our while.
(Thanks to Salim Furth for the pointer to Edwards’s work — he’s an extremely sharp Heritage economist whom you should follow on Twitter.)