Transportation Infrastructure: Yankee Ingenuity Keeps California Moving

A friend was explaining some philosophy to me the other day and he used an analogy to make his point: If you can get a cannibal to use a knife and fork, is that progress? Of course, the answer is "no". So when I heard the next day that transportation infrastructure performance in the US improved significantly at the height of the worst recession since the great depression I had to ask: is that progress?

We do not want to stop all economic progress just so that a privileged few with access to resources may enjoy an easier ride on the I-95 interstate highway between Wall Street and Congress. Stopping economic growth is not a solution to the problem of crumbling infrastructure in America.

In fact, my economic analysis shows that transportation infrastructure is a “leading indicator” of economic activity. In other words, infrastructure performance has to improve for a while – and stay improved – before economic activity will pick up in an area. Alternatively, infrastructure performance would have to decline for a while before businesses would leave that location, too. Think about it this way. From the perspective of a company already in business in a particular location, they would not pack up and leave town the first day that, for example, traffic congestion slows down the delivery of products to their customers. Companies like FedEx Freight plan distribution locations 20 years in advance. For a while, they will find a way around congestion. FedEx Freight uses elaborate technology to “route trucks around huge bottlenecks, but this adds circuitous miles and costs”. Their policy is to “minimize the impact as best you can.”

We see evidence of how business finds a way to make it work even when government and infrastructure try to stand in their way. California ranked 43rd in 1995 and fell further to 47th in 2000 and 2007 among the 50 states (plus D.C.) in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s transportation infrastructure performance index. Although California’s infrastructure is crumbling, businesses are finding a way to work around it. California’s economy could grow faster than the rest of the US economy this year.

In economics we talk about the efficient use of resources – getting the most out of what you have to work with. In a new study getting underway at the University of Delaware, early results indicate that businesses are operating successfully in the United States despite being hampered by problems like congestion and the lack of intermodal-connectivity (that is, being able to move products from trucks to trains and from trains to ships). California, in fact, may be a benchmark state for economic efficiency. They rank at the bottom for infrastructure performance but business is finding a way to make it work.

My old pal, Larry Summers – former Economic Advisor to President Obama and subverter of all things economic – took a last final swipe at spending on transportation infrastructure in April 2011. In his first public appearance at Harvard University after leaving the White House, he talked about investment in infrastructure as a way to “…tackle high levels of unemployment, especially among the low-skilled.” He just doesn’t get it. He continues to believe that the way to stimulate the economy is to give tax breaks to business – as if they will build their own roads. He just didn’t get that infrastructure is what supports all economic activity. It’s the stuff that business does business on, not the classical economic “capital” that business brings to the table.

In fact, it costs businesses to have to work around the crumbling infrastructure. When you ask academic, government and researchers to measure that cost, you get a wide range of views about what constitutes a direct or an indirect cost to business from traffic congestion. But some of these costs are undeniable. There is a cost of computer technology for monitoring congestion; the cost of employees for communicating with drivers about alternate routes; the cost of extra fuel; driver overtime resulting from congestion; refunds to customers for missing guaranteed delivery deadlines, etc. etc.

So, there’s a benefit to business from improving the performance of transportation infrastructure. They will be saving the money that they are spending now to work-around the infrastructure. And money not spent is at least as good as a tax break.

Disclosure: Dr. Trimbath’s research on the economic impact of transportation infrastructure performance was supported by the National Chamber Foundation and sponsored in part by FedEx Freight. The 2009 Transportation Performance Index will be released on July 19, 2011 in Washington, D.C. It will show a substantial improvement over 2008.