One of the great myths of American politics, no matter who is president and no matter who runs Congress, is that our infrastructure is “crumbling.”
But the infrastructure is not crumbling. Ask someone about infrastructure and his thoughts will probably wander to the worst pothole-infested road he traverses rather than the hundreds of roads he drives on that are perfectly safe and smooth. That’s human nature.
So “crumbling infrastructure” peddlers play on this concern by habitually agonizing over things like the impending outbreak of tragic bridge collapses that will kill thousands. Many outlets and politicians simply ignore the inconvenient fact that the rare fatality involving infrastructure typically has nothing to do with “crumbling” and everything to do with natural elements or human error.
In reality, the number of structurally deficient bridges, never high to begin with, has been dropping over the past 30 years despite all the hand-wringing. The overall number has fallen from over 22 percent in 1992 to under 10 percent in 2016. According to a Reuters analysis of those bridges, only 4 percent of those that carry significant traffic need repairs. Of the nation’s 1,200 busiest bridges, the number of those structurally deficient falls to under 2 percent — or fewer than 20 bridges in the entire country. And none of those bridges need repair to save them from collapse.
That has never stopped politicians from fearmongering, however.
Perhaps because they’re constantly being told that America’s roads are on the verge of disintegrating into dust, some voters aren’t aware that federal, state and local governments spent $416 billion on transportation and water infrastructure in 2014 — around the same 2.4 percent of gross domestic product they’ve been spending for decades. About $165 billion of that $416 billion, incidentally, was spent on highways. (This doesn’t count the bipartisan Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015, which added another $305 billion over five years.)
It’s also worth remembering that when liberals talk about infrastructure, they don’t necessarily mean roads or bridges or airports or water-processing plants. They mean expensive social engineering projects and Keynesian job-creation schemes.
According to a 2010 Associated Press analysis, the first 10 months of Obama’s economic stimulus plan showed virtually no effect on local unemployment rates, which rose and fell regardless of money spent on infrastructure projects. It barely even helped construction jobs. What it did do was fund cronyistic ventures and debt-padding waste.
Now, though one expects Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill to focus more on traditional projects, the case for the new spending is predicated on the same misleading rhetoric we’ve been hearing for years. The White House’s plan apparently features some attempt to reduce the regulatory burden the private sector must wade through before gaining approval for building permits. This is a positive step considering the vast majority of infrastructure is built by the private sector. This should be a goal of the administration with or without the massive infrastructure bill.
How we fund the infrastructure, and who builds these projects, is certainly a debate worth having. But it’s a debate worth having without ever using the word “crumbling.”
David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist.