New RAND Corporation national infrastructure report finds “Not Everything is Broken.” But there’s work to do.

At New Geography, Randal O’Toole calls attention to a new RAND corporation report on the nation’s infrastructure, which is less bleak than most of what we read.

A recent report from the RAND Corporation looks at America’s infrastructure and concludes that “not everything is broken.” In fact, what is broken, more than the infrastructure itself, is “our approach to funding and financing public works.” This is largely because governments by-pass market signals and rely on “often complicated and multilayered governance arrangements and competing public goals and preferences” to make decisions about where to spend money.

From the report,

Infrastructure has become a popular topic, fueled by a widely held perception among the gen- eral public and many elected o cials that the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling as a conse- quence of age and underinvestment. In fact, not all transportation and water infrastructure in the United States is falling apart—far from it. While highway, bridge, and water system main- tenance backlogs exist in many places, the data do not support a picture of precipitous decline in total national spending or in the condition of the assets….

The purpose of infrastructure is to improve worker and business productivity and social welfare. Money alone will not accomplish this goal; policy changes will also be required. Large infusions of direct federal spending or tax credits to repair or build anew may do some good by stimulating demand for construction services—even if the projects do not advance long- term priorities or address di ering needs across the country. e federal government should focus its policies on incentivizing increased public and private spending on maintenance and modernization where it is needed.

But increased spending will not x what is broken in our approach to funding and nanc- ing public works—and not everything is broken.

Like most of these reports, it’s data-dense and thoughtful. We know we have readers who care deeply about infrastructure. To them, we commend the report. One recommendation to Congress will resonate here. 

Support further state experimentation with approaches to mileage-based fee collection, with an eye toward transitioning to a new federal system that more e ectively links revenue collection to highway use.

We’ve written about such experiments, including one here in Washington. O’Toole writes,

For highways, the report recommends transition to mileage-based fee collection “that more effectively links revenue collection to highway use.” For other forms of infrastructure, the report says governments should focus on “renewal of aging infrastructure and new infrastructure incorporating advanced technologies.” The report also suggests that maintenance spending focus on “mission-critical military bases, dams, levees, locks, national parks, and other vital federal infrastructure.”

Unfortunately, unless managers can use the kind of market signals generated by mileage-based and similar user fees, terms like “advanced technologies” and “mission critical” aren’t very useful. Many bureaucrats and politicians believe that streetcars are an advanced technology, and everyone likes to believe that their favorite infrastructure is somehow “vital” to the national economy.

These big money decisions are always complicated and difficult to separate from politics. Perhaps that’s as it should be.