Warnings of an "infrastructure Crisis" are Meeting with Skepticism

Is the "infrastructure crisis" a myth or a reality? Many  within the transportation community firmly believe that the crisis is real. They point out that many of our roads, bridges and transit systems are approaching the end of their useful life and are badly in need of repair, reconstruction and modernization. They are convinced that without an ambitious program of investment ---beyond the billions that already are being spent---the transportation infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, rendering great harm to the nation's economy. They find it difficult to understand why politicians and the public do not necessarily share the same sense of urgency. They tend to blame themselves for doing a poor job of "educating" the public about the catastrophic consequences of inaction.

Even though the new two-year transportation bill has barely gone into effect (on October 1), activists already are strategizing  how better, i.e. more convincingly,  to present  the case for higher transportation spending in the next transportation bill.  As an AASHTO spokesman reminded us recently, "it is never too early to consider your strategy for making the case that the United States should continue to invest in its transportation infrastructure." "We can't afford to relax," echoed Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). "We're in a very serious struggle over the future of federal investment in transportation." Similar sentiments have been voiced in various transportation-related meetings over the past several months..   

But proponents of greater spending ignore the political realities. With mounting deficits and the shadow of a $16 trillion debt hovering over all fiscal decisions, Congress is not about to vastly increase spending on transportation. Concern about deteriorating infrastructure has failed to resonate with the electorate during the election campaign.  Nor did  the presidential condidates care to mention transportation in their recent debate on domestic priorities, despite pleas by stakeholder groups to include infrastructure on the political agenda.

Infrastructure crisis believers decry this supposed "indifference" or "short-sightedness" on the part of the politicians and the public. But their anger is misplaced. People recognize and acknowledge the need to modernize and expand the nation's infrastructure.  They simply are not convinced by the "sky is falling" rhetoric employed by the alarmists---dire warnings of collapsing bridges and crumbling roads if  government does not greatly increase spending on infrastructure. 

As the Washington Post editorialized no too long ago, people see no signs of  "crumbling infrastructure." They trust their own eyes more than they trust the unverified claims of  the experts ---and what they see is highways and transit networks that are well maintained and functioning smoothly and reliably most of the time. They suspect that  warnings of catastrophic consequences if spending on infrastructure is not boosted, are overblown, self-serving, and more often than not inspired by liberal advocacy groups, lobbyists and industry spokesmen who have a financial stake in pushing for more federal spending.  As one senior congressional aide confided to us, "I don't see our constituents lobbying to raise the gas tax in order to spend more money on transportation."

Moreover, the public is not sure that all of the billions of dollars that the federal government already devotes to  transportation ($114 billion in FY 2012) are spent  wisely, nor that more money will make the transportation system perform any better (e.g. reduce congestion).  They believe that the desire to greatly increase investment in infrastructure must be tempered by the overriding  imperative to get the nation's fiscal house in order.

Beyond MAP-21 
The fiscal and political climate in the next few years will make the job of convincing the skeptical electorate to support higher transportation spending even harder. Funding constraints will continue to make it difficult if not downright impossible for Congress to commit hundreds of billions of federal dollars in a single legislative package, regardless of which party controls the purse strings. Unwilling to raise fuel taxes, Congress is likely to embrace short-term bills as a convenient way out of the dilemma.  Short-term authorizations such as MAP-21 will require only modest transfers from the general fund ---especially if states are willing to step in with increased contributions of their own. On the other hand, a six-year bill would require an injection of nearly $90 billion in general revenue.  

To be sure, some in the stakeholder community will contend that longer-term (i.e. five- or six-year) authorizations are necessary to allow for orderly planning and implementation of capital projects. They will argue that short-term bills will not provide the kind of funding certainty that major public works require. But to the extent that large capital investments still figure on State DOTs’ and transit authorities’ agendas, private capital, tolling, and credit instruments such as TIFIA and state infrastructure banks, will provide adequate alternatives to the funding stability that long-term congressional  authorizations offered in years past.

The bottom line: regardless of the outcome of the November elections, do not expect a boost in federal transportation spending. Indeed, minor reductions in discretionary programs (TIGER, New Starts) are possible if automatic year-end spending cuts under sequestration are not avoided.