There was a lot of noise out of Washington early this year about a plan to spend a trillion dollars improving America’s infrastructure.
Dream on. ECA is’t a partisan organization—we support candidates of all parties—but we do keep an eye on all of them because much of the work we do depends on the partisans in Washington and Sacramento for funding.
The idea that there is as much as $2 trillion (President Trump’s figure) in infrastructure improvements that could be carried out in the next year or two (to “put people back to work!”) is at best a pipe dream.
Even when the Democratic Party-controlled House of Representatives passed a three trillion “stimulus” package, only a third of that was for things most call infrastructure—water work, roads, bridges, rail, airports and dams.
Now that we are in the full-blown election cycle, we’ll hear more promises from politicians of all stripes, with the Democrats pointing to Franklin Roosevelt’s infrastructure plan in the Great Depression and from the Republicans, we’ll hear about Dwight Eisenhower’s vision of the Interstate system.
But there are a few differences between the 1930s, 1950s and today. Bob Poole, Reason Foundation’s Director of Transportation Policy, recently explained it this way:
“Construction in those days employed huge numbers of unskilled laborers, rather than today’s skilled trades using hightech machinery. Mega-projects back then did not have to go through five-to-10 years of environmental studies before construction could start. Hoover Dam, for example, was designed and built in just five years. Nothing like that could happen today.
“How much new construction or rebuilding of crumbling infrastructure was accomplished by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)? It doled out $26.7 billion to states for highway projects. Jeff Davis of the Eno Center for Transportation analyzed this and earlier efforts in an excellent overview piece published in March. He shows that “ARRA spending largely replaced—not supplemented—regular Highway Trust Fund spending.”
“Moreover, there were very few “shovel-ready projects” able to begin on short notice, so much of the ARRA highway money was spent on resurfacing existing roads—hardly “rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure.” Davis also notes that “There are only so many highway contractors in each state, and only so many state DOT engineers to supervise the projects,” which is likewise the case today. A study by the St. Louis Fed in 2017 found that the ARRA highway money had no significant impact on highway or bridge conditions or jobs.”
By Dave Sorem, P.E. ECA Government Affairs Chairman email: [email protected]