Beth Osborne is director of Transportation for America, a nonprofit based in the District.
It’s Infrastructure Week again, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing the last one ever ended. For the past two years, it seems everyone in Washington — Congress, the White House, journalists and advocates — has been obsessed with a plan to pump up to $2 trillion into our nation’s transportation infrastructure.
But forget that plan. We don’t need it, and it could even do more harm than good.
At best, this infrastructure plan would throw more money into the same flawed system. At worst, Congress and the president would be signing a blank check with no sense of what the money is intended to accomplish, no clear system for accountability, no requirements for states to actually repair our “crumbling roads and bridges” and no guarantees that any of us would have an easier time getting from A to B when all that money has been spent.
What we need from Congress is an update to federal transportation policy for the next six years, which governs how we spend some $61 billion annually on highways and transit programs. And we need lawmakers to find more than $13 billion a year to cover shrinking gas-tax revenue.
Instead, all the oxygen in the room is being sucked up by a nonstop conversation about a one-time spending spree — with little mention of how to put the program on strong financial footing or what this spending would buy us. Our transportation infrastructure problems are primarily about policy that’s wildly out of touch with what people need and want today. More spending simply won’t fix the underlying problems.
Repair and maintenance are the most glaring examples. We all want dependable infrastructure that’s regularly and responsibly maintained. Yet Congress has created zero requirements (or even incentives) for states to spend money on repairs, and the sorry state of our roads and bridges reflects that fact.
Between 2009 and 2017, the percentage of roads nationwide in poor condition increased, despite the federal government providing more than $300 billion through two long-term transportation bills and billions more in the 2009 stimulus. Road conditions got worse in 37 states over that time period. Why? Because Congress gives states wide latitude and flexibility, allowing them to spend nearly as much money expanding their road networks as they did repairing existing roads. (From 2009 to 2014, they spent about $120 billion on both.)
Governments typically treat new roads as assets on their balance sheets, but they could also be defined as liabilities, bringing decades of baked-in maintenance costs that are rarely fully accounted for. Between 2009 and 2017, states and localities built enough new roads to crisscross the United States 83 times. It will cost an additional $5 billion per year to keep those new roads in good condition. That’s more money than Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Arkansas receive in federal highway money each year combined.
So what would a reimagining of federal transportation policy look like? We could set enforceable goals to prioritize improving the safety and condition of our roads and bridges first. Then we should talk about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and providing better access to jobs and services. Congress should guarantee measurable benefits and hold states accountable for fulfilling those promises before giving them any more money. States doing a good job on repair could be given more flexibility.
We could also restrict today’s routine highway funding to maintenance only and create competitive programs to fund new roads, just as we require for transit. Agencies competing for limited federal funds to expand transit must prove they can also cover long-term maintenance and operations, something no road project ever has to do. When state highway departments can’t cover their commitments because they’ve prioritized expansion over repair, they’ll just ask for more money.
After all, there will always be another Infrastructure Week.
Taxpayers deserve to know what they’re getting for their spending. But federal transportation policy is devoid of any broad, ambitious vision for the future, and more spending has only led to more roads, more traffic, more pollution, more inequality and a lack of transportation options.
It’s no wonder that once you get outside of the usual interest groups in Washington, the public is far more skeptical about spending $2 trillion on infrastructure. Congress has gotten so distracted by this mythical infrastructure plan — and the price of it — that they are missing their chance to create public excitement and chart a new direction for the 21st century.
So let’s skip the spending spree. Resetting federal policy to meet the needs of a modern United States will pay greater dividends and have a more lasting impact than a one-off infusion of funding into the same broken system. Without addressing the policy first, the infrastructure plan could just dig a deeper hole. It’s time for Congress and the president to stop digging.