Our new Brookings report (available tomorrow) makes the Economix blog of the New York Times:
Fix Old Roads, Instead of Constructing New Ones, Report Urges – NYTimes.com
February 24, 2011, 3:50 PM
Fix It and They Will Come
By DAVID LEONHARDT
On Friday morning, the Hamilton Project will release a few new proposals for helping fiscally struggling state and local governments keep their roads, bridges and other infrastructure in decent shape. One of the proposals fits a theme I’ve been writing about recently: making government programs less wasteful.
This proposal comes from Matthew Kahn of the University of California, Los Angeles, and David Levinson of the University of Minnesota. The title summarizes it: “Fix It First, Expand It Second, Reward It Third.”
Mr. Kahn and Mr. Levinson call on the federal government to devote its current funding for highways to repair, rather than to the construction of new highways. As they note, the reverse happens all too often:
The way the federal government allocates money for transportation infrastructure investments is one reason why the United States is experiencing a maintenance shortfall and falling returns on new investment. Federal highway infrastructure spending is allocated based on a series of subjective criteria that typically do not require any stringent analysis of expected benefits versus costs. Because there is often public pressure to build new projects using scarce funds, adding capacity often comes at the expense of supporting and enhancing existing infrastructure.
We build roads we don’t need instead of fixing aging roads that we do need. The Kahn-Levinson solution would force state and local governments to spend their federal dollars on repair and to raise money from investors for new construction.
New roads would have to be able to pay for themselves — “through direct user charges and by capturing some of the increase in land values near transportation improvements” — or investors wouldn’t finance them. A newly created Federal Highway Bank would serve as an intermediary between the investors and the state and local governments.
Finally, roads that exceeded expectations — were completed ahead of schedule, for instance, or reduced traffic more than expected — would be eligible for a federal interest-rate subsidy, through the highway bank.
The idea strikes me as promising. The big question, it seems, is how Congress can be persuaded to get out of the business of shiny new roads and concentrate instead on the unglamorous repair work.
The Hamilton Project — which is a branch of the Brookings Institution and tends to be filled with once and future Democratic policy makers — will host an event on Friday to discuss its new proposals.