Huffpost misses the mark on the roadblocks to infrastructure improvements

infrastructureThe Huffington Post’s 2,000-word article on the US’s crumbling infrastructure mentions how Obama promised stimulus funds would go to “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects. But it blames the lack of actual infrastructure projects funded by stimulus dollars bizarrely on… too-low gas taxes?

Gregoire and others would like to see the country take up President Obama’s challenge to spend the $60 billion outlined in his proposed American Jobs Act for infrastructure spending.

Congress is divided, however, on how to fix America’s roads, bridges, dams and waterways. After Obama’s proposal was defeated last year, both the House and Senate pressed forward on writing their own long-term bills for surface transportation — the most important component of federal infrastructure spending.

But surface transportation bills double down on the same errors that got the country into its hole in the first place, according to JayEtta Hacker, who was formerly the director of transportation issues at the General Accounting Office. All of these bills, she said, are tied to a woefully inadequate system for monitoring how effectively the federal, state and local governments spend tax dollars on infrastructure.

“There are no goals,” she said. “There are no outcomes. And there’s no data or information or evidence of what kind of returns we get from the federal investment dollar.”

Instead, the federal government simply doles money out to states on a ratio that’s based on how much their drivers spent on federal gas taxes. The states, in turn, spend the money they receive on items in their federally required state transportation plan, which, Hacker said, consists of “stapled pet projects and plans for different parts of the state.”

This model, created during the vast expansion of the interstate highway system in the middle of the 20th century, is now running out of gas, quite literally: the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax has not been changed since 1993. Newer fuel-efficient car models and inflation mean that the money raised off that tax, about $32 billion a year, is getting scarcer and scarcer. The federal highway system is supposed to pay for itself with the tax, but over the last three years $34.5 billion in transfers from general tax revenues have been needed to fill the widening gas tax gap.

The Congressional Budget Office just released a report showing that the Highway Trust Fund, the major source of money for surface transportation, will go bankrupt in 2014 because of declining gas tax revenues. Neither Democrats nor Republicans in Congress have a plan to fix that.

The fact that we haven’t raised the gas tax in so long, said Hacker, is “unconscionable.” But it’s not surprising: some 77 percent of Americans, including majorities of both major parties, are against a hike.

We’ve got some great points here. A lack of transparency, competition or profit motive severely limits the effectiveness of federal infrastructure spending. But then the next paragraph tries to blame it on how the money is allocated between the states. Seems like a total red herring. How does the percentage  of federal dollars allocated to each state affect how efficiently the dollars are spent?  How does raising the gas tax fix those problems? But not raising gas taxes is “unconscionable.” For sure.

The weirdest thing about the article is that it fails to mention one of the biggest reasons the US infrastructure crumbles while stimulus dollars sit unused.

Federal and state zoning and environmental regulations hamstring efforts to build and improve infrastructure. Government bureaucrats can’t spend money because of layers of red tape laid down by other bureaucrats. Listen to one of them from Shovel-ready sites in short supply.

“The layering of federal, state, and local regulations — all designed to protect our communities and environment — creates an expensive and time-consuming permitting maze.”

Dontcha think in 2,000 words that should’ve come up?

There’s not a whole lot you can do about the inherent inefficiency of government spending. But dumb regulations are easy to roll back, and need to be rolled back. That will free up not only stimulus dollars but will help clear hurdles for private investment as well.

That, or they can increase the gas tax.

Image by rainchurch.

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