Highways and Federalism

The Reason Foundation’s just-released study on state highway performance has been getting lots of national press (see here and here), but an important subtext may be missed as Democrats and skittish Republicans gear up for a second stimulus. Conventional wisdom will suggest that this new money go into a national infrastructure program, but the data suggest we should probably go in the opposite direction.

The Reason report notes that highway performance, based on outcome and cost, has improved over the last several years when measured by nationwide averages. However, this national average masks substantial variation among states (and the base itself often sets a pretty low bar).

Nationally, for example, nearly half of all the urban interstate road miles are congested. The share of roads congested ranges from nearly 80 percent in California and Minnesota to zero in Montana, the Dakotas, and Wyoming. The share of bridges that rate as deficient ranges from a whopping 38 percent in New York and Hawaii to just 11 percent in Nevada and Arizona.

The lesson? Transportation is increasingly a state function and not a national one. A second stimulus is likely to serve as political cover for a further centralization of transportation finance and policy when the data are showing more clearly than ever that we need to decentralize policy and authority to the governments that have the most knowledge and understanding of their particular transportation challenges: the states.

Samuel R. Staley is director of urban and land-use policy at the Reason Foundation.

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