EVER SINCE policy experts drew attention a couple of years ago to the dilapidated state of many public facilities, proposals for repairing what came to be called the nation's infrastructure have abounded. So extreme was the deterioration said to be that trillions of dollars would be needed to put highways, sewers, transit systems and other public works in decent condition. Two recent studies, however, suggest that the situation is more manageable than had been supposed. That's the good news. The bad news is that dealing with it will probably require a far more disciplined approach to public works financing than Congress is likely to accept.
A survey of 809 cities by the National League of Cities and the Conference of Mayors found that almost all face sizable repair jobs, but that the cost of urgent repairs was relatively modest and that local resources could cover much of it. The Congressional Budget Office similarly found that--despite the $5.5 billion added last year to annual highway spending and the $4 billion voted in the recent public works "jobs" bill--all levels of government needed to step up capital spending by about $11 billion a year. But, the study observed, most of the spending shortfall could be met by better allocation of current federal dollars.
The CBO criticized current federal public works policy for overemphasizing construction of new facilities, for channeling dollars to projects of local interest but low national priority, and for encouraging states and localities to neglect needed repair and replacement of existing facilities. Most essential public works systems are already in place, and emphasis in federal spending should now shift from new construction to repair. The federal government also needs to find a better way to expend its resources on truly national concerns while giving states and localities more flexibility in addressing their widely varying public works needs.
To get Congress to plan public works expenditures more sensibly, Reps. Bill Clinger and Bob Edgar have been pushing the idea of requiring the administration to prepare an inventory of the nation's capital assets and to make annual assessments of the most-needed improvements and repairs. The administration wisely opposes the idea of a separate "capital budget," on the ground that this would be an invitation to run up still larger federal deficits. But it has warmed somewhat to the idea of compelling Congress to consider the long-term implications of its public works spending decisions.
All this sensible advice, however, is likely to fall on deaf ears in Congress. As long as congressmen judge their worth to their constituents by the imposing public works they cause to be constructed in their districts--never mind the future cost of maintaining them--the poor old infrastructure is likely to keep crumbling while the repair bills steadily mount.