The Corner

Politics & Policy

No Amount of Spending Can Stop the ‘Crumbling Roads and Bridges’ Rhetoric

Allow me to mark the White House’s “Infrastructure Week” by declaring that there is no amount of money that is enough to stop politicians from insisting the country suffers from “crumbling roads and bridges.”

Back in 2009, President Obama touted that the stimulus represented “the largest new investment in our nation’s infrastructure since Eisenhower” which amounted to $105 billion. (You may recall Obama’s sheepish admission about the slow pace of the projects, “Shovel-ready was not as… uh…  shovel-ready as we expected.”)

The federal government spent more than $150 billion per year on infrastructure for most of the Obama era:

Federal infrastructure spending has grown steadily since the 1940s. When adjusted for inflation, real federal spending on physical resources—including energy, natural resources, transportation, and community development—is nearly six times higher today than it was in 1940, and more than double what it was in 1970. Notable spikes in federal spending are apparent during the Interstate Highway Era of the late 1950s, the introduction of more comprehensive environmental and community development efforts during the 1970s, and the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. Real federal spending over this 75-year period averages around $102 billion annually.

Separately, state and local governments spend at least $250 billion on infrastructure each year. So we’ve spent close to $400 billion per year for the past eight or nine years, and the rhetoric hasn’t changed.

The conditions of America’s roads and bridges is actually satisfactory and improving; it’s just that politicians’ rhetoric never actually checks in with the quality.

Despite a reputation of steep decline, the number and share of bridges deemed “structurally deficient” (not unsafe, but in need of elevated maintenance) has declined by more than half over the last 25 years and now represents just 9 percent of the nation’s total.

The same goes for the nation’s major roads. A full 93 percent of the miles driven on the National Highway System is on pavement that is in fair or better condition.

No matter how much the federal government spends this year, you can count on other lawmakers and candidates insisting it’s not enough and lamenting “our crumbing roads and bridges” next year.


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