The April 20-May 6th Economist published an article entitled: “Life in the Slow Lane“ (I am sure an obvious pun on the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane”, itself a commentary on misspent priorities and self destruction). This article is referenced the recent Congressional Budget Office’s report on Infrastructure spending, which highlights trends in funding transportation in the U.S.
The Economist article reports (as if this information is something new) on the chronic underfunding of transportation in the U.S., and the demise of a once great transportation network. When combined with the various reports and studies that have been written over the past ten years, the sum of the articles point to a lack of will to do something that everyone knows is critical – improve transportation networks.
Generally, spending on infrastructure has tracked general spending at the Federal level (this includes all expenditures (highway, railroads, airports, waterways, etc.) reported by governmentspending.com). Since 1960, expenditures on transportation increased as the U.S. built out the interstate transportation system, waterways (such as the Tenn-Tom) and locks and dams, and airports through the U.S. while transit systems were also being developed. The Age of the Engineer was in full swing. (Figure 1.)
Figure 1. %Change in total Federal Spending on Transportation and Total Federal Spending.
While spending increased, the U.S. has continued to spend less in transportation as a share of total budgets for a long time (“a gradual disinvestment in the system?”). The net effect resulted in a decline in spending on transportation as a share of total federal expenditures, despite many authorized projects that have never been completed across the nation (Figure 2.).
Figure 2. %Change in total Federal Spending on Transportation as a Share of Total Federal Spending
But focusing only on federal expenditures ignores and under-reports the large volume of state expenditures on state and local transportation needs. (Roughly When the role of state spending is added to the federal spending levels, we see that the while the percentage of total government expenditures has increased, the overtime, the share of total expenditures has declined across the entire U.S. at the same time that rising project costs, materials, and related fees and time has lead to a net slowing of projects being constructed while the maintenance backlog continues to overwhelm limited resources.
Figure 3. %Change in total State, local and Federal Spending on Transportation as a Share of Total Spending
Given the rubik of discussions on freight security, livable communities, logistics lead economic development, climate change and energy policy, it is clear that future discussions regarding transportation in the U.S. will remain mired in questions about creating a vision. The problem is that the potential change dollar’s role as an international currency may change, as well as the price of energy, which may force us to determine if we can continue to live off the previous investments of our forefathers without developing our generation’s transportation legacy for America. The question of livable cities, the investment in high speed rail, with the potential corresponding growth in new transportation/city frameworks (such as the Center for Clean Air Policy’s “Growing Wealthier” suggests) may be one future, but without the revenue and funding sources identified, I expect there to be more articles in the Economist complaining about America’s Infrastructure.