Picking and Choosing Infrastructure Projects

At RealClearPolicy Chris Spear provides yet another self-serving post about U. S. infrastructure which, like most, takes the civil engineers’ professional society’s report uncritically:

Our nation’s economy relies on the continuous and efficient movement of goods and people, but the current condition of our nation’s infrastructure puts that at risk. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a D+ on its 2017 report card. Among the recipients of the lowest marks were the nation’s highways, which the report described as “often crowded, frequently in poor condition, chronically underfunded, and are becoming more dangerous.”

As I respond whenever the topic comes up, the ASCE’s report tells us nothing about what’s worth repairing, only what would need to be repaired if you repaired everything.

The nature of our system requires us to pick and choose. We aren’t going to repair everything, build everywhere, or build everything. Among the many projects vying for federal, state, or local dollars, how to decide which are most deserving?

If we’re looking at the present and the inevitable future, I would think we’d give priority to refurbishing our sewer systems. We’ll undoubtedly need them in the future and the ASCE’s report on our combined sewer system isn’t much rosier than their report on our roads.

If we were looking to the future, we’d give priority to the energy grid and data infrastructure. On both we need to face facts. Private power companies just don’t have much interest in improving the national grid. If it is to be improved and if we plan to increase, for example, the number of electric vehicles on the road, it will need to be improved, doing so will require government funding and leadership.

In terms of data infrastructure although broadband usage in the United States is fairly high (87%), the speed of our broadband and its cost are an embarrassment. Broadband speeds over 25 mbps greatly lag behind Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Norway, and most other European countries and our broadband costs are consistently among the highest in the world. Neither of those are likely to improve without government involvement.

The other aspect of identifying spending priorities is just how long will that road you’re building be used? When the The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was enacted, kicking off the present system of interstate highways, we could expect to amortize the expense over the lifetime of the roads. Is that still the case?

If the hype of those promoting autonomous vehicles and the warnings of environmentalists are to be headed, it isn’t. We won’t need more roads in 30 years but fewer.

1 comment… add one
  • steve

    The grid seems like such an obvious thing to do. ROI should be great. Doubt it will happen though.


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