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Portugal and Barbados are Beating Us?

January 24, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

In 2002, the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report ranked the quality of U.S. infrastructure as fifth best internationally. In the latest report for 2012-13, we're down to No. 25, behind such world powers as Iceland, Portugal and Barbados, and our competitiveness is slipping, too. Even Canada, our closest peer spacially and culturally, placed 15th.

One thing we still lap the globe in, however, is infrastructure quantity, particularly motorways and air transport facilities. But it's hard to be the bestest with the mostest, especially when U.S. executives asked about our most problematic factors for doing business recited a familiar litany of "inefficient government bureaucracy," "tax rates" and "tax regulations."

That was the subjective part of the annual report. Most other measures were derived from official statistics. And you can measure the executives' assessment against the fact that taxes now consume the smallest percentage of the U.S. economy in 60 years.

It's more than likely that last statistic has something to do with our crumbling infrastructure. Along with our fiscal deficits following orgies of tax-cutting, we've been running up daunting infrastructure deficits by deferring maintenance of what we have as we keep building more. This cannot end well. Because of these and other factors, U.S. competitiveness dropped from fourth to seventh in the World Economic Forum rankings in just the past two years.

Two very different prescriptions to get our infrastructure groove back on have crossed my desk this month.

One, from the libertarian Reason Foundation, calls for scrapping several transportation-related taxes; eliminating federal contributions to transit, commercial waterways and non-hub airports (but not hubs, highways and bridges); increasing tolling on interstate highways; authorizing more public-private partnerships and exempting transportation workers from federal labor protections.

The second, from the American Society of Civil Engineers, simply urges the nation to spend $4.7 trillion more than is currently authorized over the next three decades on transportation, water, sewer and electric power infrastructure. This is hardly more appealing than Reason's scenario of full-bore devolution, but we do have to raise and spend more on these vital engines of prosperity.

Strong Towns blogger Charles Marohn Jr., a nonpracticing Minnesota engineer, has flayed his former colleagues for recommendations like this, accusing them of self-interest and economic benefit projections that don't add up. Many of the "needs" cited by the ASCE, Marohn says, would simply continue the sprawl development that's bankrupting us.

The engineers have been issuing reports like this for years, grading our infrastructure near failing and calling for trillions in new investment. Hardly anyone has paid attention. Maybe if they weeded out the "wants" from the the "needs" and came up with cost estimates that reflect fiscal reality, policymakers would start to listen.

Even then, it would be a tough sell to the public. As other opinion probes have found, recent focus group participants in the Washington, D.C., area overwhelmingly called for better transportation and less congestion but voiced little desire to pay for it. 

New financing schemes, including mileage fees and some of Reason's proposals, got little support from the focus groups. The most popular option was increasing federal fuel taxes, still stuck at 1993 levels that have been eroded by two decades of inflation and improving gas economy. But that was backed by less than a third of participants.

Bringing federal fuel taxes into the 21st century is still a good idea, but only if the extra money is focused on maintenance and rebuilding of existing roads and bridges. Most conservatives, Reason included, deplore the diversion of a fraction of that revenue to transit and nonmotorized transportation, but that's where most of our investments in new infrastructure should be directed.

And that's what the public wants, too. More than three-quarters of the D.C. respondents urged more spending on transit and nearly three-fifths backed more pedestrian and bicycle projects. Motorways came in last at 53 percent support. Opinion surveys in Minnesota have yielded similar results.

We need, and the people want, a grand bargain in transportation that maintains existing assets and focuses expansion on the non-motorway infrastructure that more and more Americans are choosing.

Photo credit: Joey, creative commons

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