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How Bad Is America's Infrastructure Crisis? Maybe Not As Bad As It Seems.

While the transportation industry is pushing Congress to pass a new infrastructure plan, a Brown University economist warns that new construction might not get the bang-for-the-buck that proponents claim.

potholes in road
(Shutterstock)

SPEED READ:

  • America's infrastructure isn't failing, according to a new paper released by the Brookings Institution. In fact, it's as good or better than it has been in decades.
  • The report does suggest that a realignment of infrastructure spending is needed, with money directed away from rural highways and reinvested in urban transit networks, according to the report.
  • Critics say the new paper ignores underlying chronic problems throughout the country's infrastructure system.
 
Just how bad is America’s infrastructure crisis?

The talk in Washington these days leaves little doubt that our country’s roads, bridges, pipes, tracks and wires are all in serious trouble. A national group of civil engineers grades the United States’ infrastructure as a D+. Governors, mayors and transportation advocates repeat the same message of near-failure, especially as they try to convince Congress to pass a major infrastructure package.

Their pitch often comes down to this: America’s infrastructure is crumbling, and investing in new and improved infrastructure will get Americans out of traffic and stimulate the country’s economy.

But Matthew Turner, an economics professor from Brown University, says many of those assumptions are flawed, if not simply wrong.

In a new paper from the Brookings Institution, Turner contends that, by many measures, the nation’s infrastructure is in as good a shape as it has been for decades -- or even better. “There does not seem to be a pervasive crisis in infrastructure maintenance,” he writes. “There are surely potholes, old buses and decrepit rail cars, but this situation is not obviously worse than it was 20 years ago. In fact, there are fewer potholes on the interstate.”

For highways, buses and rail transit, he adds, “investment is about matching or exceeding depreciation. Proponents of big expansions in maintenance spending should be required to show that current expenditures are not keeping up with depreciation.”

Turner’s analysis is admittedly limited. He focuses on the condition of interstate highways, buses and urban rail cars, which are among the most visible public transportation assets. That leaves out a lot of other transportation infrastructure, from local roads to subway tracks. Still, the analysis does highlight some areas where, counter to the doom-and-gloom rhetoric in Washington, America’s infrastructure is actually improving.

For example, Turner notes that the pavement on interstate highways have gotten smoother every year from 1993 to 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. Meanwhile, the average age of buses and rail cars has remained about the same during that time, even if it means keeping the average age of subway cars at 22 years old.

“This does not suggest a pervasive maintenance deficit. On the contrary, it suggests that current levels of investment approximately offset deterioration of transit vehicles and steadily improve the interstates. Blanket increases in infrastructure maintenance are probably not warranted,” he writes.

But Turner’s real goal isn’t so much to inventory assets as to use the data to provide an economics-driven guide for setting the country’s infrastructure priorities. The data suggest that a shift in funding is needed, Turner argues. Rural interstates are lightly used but improving in condition, while urban rail cars are heavily used but not getting any better.

“While there may be partisan disagreement over whether U.S. transportation policy should favor rural automobiles or urban rails, there should be no disagreement over the desirability of infrastructure that people actually use and that reduces the cost of mobility,” he writes.

 

Report May Ignore Underlying Problems

Rocky Moretti, the director of policy and research for TRIP, a transportation research group that often highlights the poor condition of state and federal road networks, says Turner’s analysis only skimmed the surface when he looked at the condition of transportation infrastructure.

For one thing, Moretti says, looking at only interstates misses bigger problems with the rest of the road networks. Using federal data, Moretti recently found that 33 percent of all roads in metropolitan areas are in poor condition. In some places, the issue is much worse. In the San Francisco Bay area, for example, 71 percent of roads are in poor shape.

“When you talk to state and local transportation agencies, what you’ll find is that the transportation agencies are triaging problems,” Moretti says. “Paving interstates is a priority for them, so they’re pulling their money out of other roads to maintain the interstates.”

But the problems go even deeper, Moretti says, because the most commonly used metric for evaluating the conditions of roads is pavement smoothness. Most people can appreciate how important it is that a road is smooth, and smoothness is the only metric for which the federal government collects data. That’s why even Moretti used the smoothness index in his recent report on road conditions.

“But what it misses is the underlying structure of the highway,” Moretti says. “The substructures of a lot of these interstates are falling apart.”

The interstates were largely built between the 1960s and 1980s, which makes their older components more than half a century old. Those older pieces need to be replaced, Moretti says, especially because people are traveling more and the roads are carrying more freight. But state and local agencies don’t have the money for major rebuilding projects. Transportation agencies are trying to just keep the highways open as long as they can, he says, but “you can’t keep them open indefinitely.”

The American Society for Civil Engineers says that 2 out of every 5 miles of urban interstates are congested, and that traffic is getting worse. The engineering group puts out the frequently cited “Infrastructure Report Card” every four years, which most recently rated the nation's infrastructue as a D+. Americans wasted 6.9 billion hours sitting in traffic in 2014, according to the group, or about 42 hours per driver.

Turner questions the link between traffic congestion and road capacity. “As severe as highway traffic congestion may be, it is not strictly a problem of highway capacity: Daily rates of travel are well below the physical capacity of the interstate. Highway congestion is a problem of having sufficient capacity at peak times. Nearly all interstate highways have surplus, unused capacity at off-peak hours,” he writes.

Urban sections of freeway carried 40 percent of their plausible maximum, while rural sections carried 18 percent. Meanwhile, both buses and urban rail cars only used between 15 and 20 percent of their theoretical capacity.

Public officials often talk about how new transportation infrastructure will lead to new or better jobs. But Turner cautions against making that assumption. “Highways and other transportation infrastructure clearly have the ability to create economic activity in one place at the expense of some other place. It is less clear that this infrastructure increases overall economic activity,” he writes.

That goes for expanding subway networks, as well. While poor residents benefit more from public transit, the “new jobs or economic activity associated with low-skilled workers will probably not justify the investments on their own,” he explains.

This appears in the Infrastructure newsletter. Subscribe for free.

 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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