The new year has brought good news in the form of reports that, instead of waiting for federal funds to be directed to urgently needed investment in our nation’s infrastructure, states are beginning to rise to the task.
It came as a surprise to few that the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2017 gave U.S. public roads a “D” in its Infrastructure Report Card. With individual states competing to attract businesses to their urban centers, it seems many are realizing potholed roads and rusting bridges are a real turnoff, as well as a liability. It’s time for America to bring its “A” game to infrastructure. States’ actions may hold the key.
For example, The Wall Street Journal reported that, after years of taking money away from transportation needs to dig the state out of budget holes, Kansas plans to spend $435 million on highway expansion and modernization projects over the next two years.
The 50 U.S. states together spent $113.2 billion on transportation in 2019, up 9% from the previous year, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, and 15 states had an increase of at least 10% in total transportation spending. The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) forecasts that transportation departments and local governments will spend $77.5 billion on highway and street construction in 2020, a 6% increase over 2019.
Still, the big picture needs to be kept in view, to avoid a patchwork of crumbling infrastructure from state to state. At the recent annual meeting of the American Economic Association, former Federal Reserve chief Janet L. Yellen joined a host of economists in urging the U.S. government to borrow more. “In a world of low real rates, there’s … a strong case for programs to invest in infrastructure, education, research and development, climate change mitigation — namely investments that would elevate potential growth,” Yellen said.
Meanwhile, responses to the 2020 Census, which includes every person living in the United States, could help decide when and where roads and bridges will be built in the next decade. Let’s hope the Census puts some hard figures to the trend for populations to concentrate back in cities, where infrastructure is most in need of TLC.
For those wondering about the frustrating paucity of infrastructure funds coming out of the federal government despite strong bipartisan support, there might be some encouraging signs from Washington. Earlier this month, ARTBA president Dave Bauer praised the Trump administration’s January 9 proposals to modernize the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), aimed at reducing delays to key transportation improvements projects and maintaining environmental safeguards. Bauer said he believes reforms will help spur transportation infrastructure improvements.
Don’t hold your breath, though. It’s worth remembering that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was created in 1921 as a uniquely bi-state, quasi-public agency tasked with assessing the region’s transportation needs in a way that would transcend interstate quarreling. Their first task was to build a bridge to carry rail freight across the Hudson. Cargo could cross the entire country by train, until it needed to traverse the last mile to reach the biggest concentration of consumers in the country — New York City. Everything then had to be unloaded and re-arranged, first onto boats and then, after the opening of the Holland Tunnel in 1926, trucks that battled passenger traffic for the tunnel’s limited capacity. Clearly, this was absurd. Plans were drawn up, public meetings held. It was to be an engineering marvel. Nothing ever came of it. Instead, after 40 years of doing not very much, the port authority chose to build a 13.5 million square-foot office complex that never reached full market-rate occupancy. Go figure.
Helen Atkinson is a contributing writer to SupplyChainBrain.
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