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The Construction Projects Governments Are (and Aren't) Funding

Spending is up on airports but down or flat for schools, highways and prisons.

Schools represent one of the biggest categories of state and local government construction costs.
(Flickr/Phil and Jo Schiffbauer)
It appears increasingly unlikely that Congress will push through a bill this year to repair and upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.

The Trump administration’s proposal in February pledged about $200 billion in federal funding and tasked state and local governments with finding another $1 trillion. There has been little movement on the issue since then.

To put the amount states and localities are being asked to pony up into perspective, it's worth considering how much they're currently spending on construction. The Census Bureau’s most recent estimates suggest state and local governments are on pace to spend about $275 billion this year on new schools, roads and airports, among other infrastructure projects. That represents a minimal increase from last year.

Following the recession, public infrastructure spending dropped as governments made budget cuts. It has subsequently fluctuated since about 2012, while private-sector construction continues to record strong growth.


The Census Bureau estimates an annual rate of construction spending each month. Published amounts represent the "value of construction put in place" by new structures, renovations or major replacements, excluding maintenance and repairs to existing structures.

Here's a breakdown of how states and localities are spending money on building costs:


Primary and Secondary Schools

Schools represent one of the biggest categories of state and local government construction costs.

Spending severely dropped off following the recession and hasn’t recovered. Current rates of annual spending are about where they were back in 2000, when adjusted for inflation, but do not account for increased student enrollment.

School districts are unlikely to get much help from Congress: The Trump administration’s infrastructure plan made no specific mention of funds allocated for school projects.

About half of the roughly $45 billion spent last year on school construction funds high schools. Higher education construction spending, which is classified separately, dipped a bit the past two years but has held up better over the longer term than elementary and secondary schools.



Highways and Streets

Spending on highway and street infrastructure has remained relatively flat for several years.

The bulk, or about two thirds of the $94 billion spent annually, funds roadways. States and localities spend another approximately $30 billion per year on bridges, a figure that’s down slightly from inflation-adjusted 2015 levels.

The national share of bridges classified as “structurally deficient,” those with at least one major component in poor condition, has declined steadily in recent decades. Still, structurally deficient bridges are common in some states -- those with the most last year were Rhode Island (23 percent), Iowa (21 percent) and West Virginia (19 percent), according to federal data.




Corrections facility construction has declined more than any other major spending category in recent years.

The Census Bureau’s latest figures indicate states and localities spend around $4 billion annually on corrections construction projects, or just over half of what they did a decade ago when adjusted for inflation.

A number of factors might explain the spending shift. Incarceration rates and the prison population, for one, have started to decline after decades of steep growth. It’s also likely that privatization of prisons has enabled states to avoid building or upgrading some correctional facilities.



Air Transportation

Airport construction spending has accelerated somewhat in recent years.

Most prominently, the Los Angeles International Airport continues its $14 billion capital improvement program. The Denver International Airport recently broke ground on a $1.5 billion expansion project to significantly increase the airport’s capacity. Others, such as Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport, are similarly slated for upgrades in the coming years.



Mass Transit

Spending on transit construction projects, which include light rail, streetcars and subways, hasn’t grown much in recent years.

However, current levels of about $8 billion annually do represent a major increase from a decade ago when states and localities spent only $5 billion. Several systems are in the midst of repairing or upgrading long-neglected infrastructure.



State and Local Government Construction Data by Spending Category

Select an infrastructure spending category for current and historical data. Some categories comprise other categories; see the Census Bureau's website for a list of definitions.

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