Too Little of a Good Thing?

Rail advocates found reason to cheer when President Obama announced a “comprehensive infrastructure plan to expand and renew our nation’s roads, railways and runways.” Though a significant share of the planned investments—$50 billion—would be front-loaded in the first year, over the next six years the administration proposes to rebuild 150,000 miles of roads, construct and maintain 4,000 miles of rail, and rehabilitate or newly reconstruct 150 miles of airport runways.

The administration’s announcement is driven by at least two factors:

  • The state of transportation infrastructure across the United States is deplorable. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that on the order of $150 billion is needed annually (for many years to come) to fix deficiencies. (This figure excludes navigable waterways).
  • The administration’s 2009 Recovery Act (ARRA) notwithstanding, the United States continues to be mired in economic crisis. Unemployment has remained in the 9.4 to 10.6 percent range during the last year and currently affects close to 15 million Americans. This is more than double the 7 million people who were unemployed in 2007, before the recent economic recession. Another 6 million-plus people are not classified as currently in the labor force, but are seeking a job.

The administration is hoping to kill several birds with one stone, addressing not just a long-term structural problem, but also reinforcing its job creation efforts ahead of a critical mid-term election that threatens to swing the political momentum in a direction that may prove fatal to hopes of securing needed infrastructure and stimulus investments.

James Corliss, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America, praised Obama’s initiative as part of an “aggressive, multi-year construction and rehabilitation effort [that] is fundamental to the long-term health of our economy.” Rail and transit advocates like Corliss say they are encouraged by the implicit long-term vision. But multi-year surface transportation legislation expired late last year, and Congress has so far failed to reauthorize it. Therefore, transportation spending hobbles along on a short-term, temporary basis.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman takes a somber view. On his blog, he offers a terse comment about the proposed $50 billion investment: “1. It’s a good idea.
  2. It’s much too small.  
3. It won’t pass anyway—which makes you wonder why the administration didn’t propose a bigger plan, so as to at least make the point that the other party is standing in the way of much needed repair to our roads, ports, sewers, and more—not to mention creating jobs.” Fellow economist Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research similarly notes that “$50 billion in infrastructure spending is equal to 1.4 percent of the federal budget.”

Aside from macroeconomic concerns, it is worth making a different kind of comparison as well. The prospect of 4,000 miles (about 6,400 kilometers) of new track rightly warms rail advocates’ hearts. But it is actually a fairly modest proposal. Spain, a much smaller country than the United States, has a goal of building 10,000 kilometers of high-speed rail track by 2020. If the United States were to match Spain’s commitment, it would have to build some 190,000 kilometers relative to land size and 66,000 kilometers in proportion to population.

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