Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, says she wants to spend $275 billion over five years to rebuild American roads and bridges. As noted here last year, that’s nowhere near enough money. Donald “I am your voice” Trump, the GOP nominee, says he’ll spend twice as much.
Neither candidate is overly specific on the details of how to fund those repairs.
But the amounts suggested are piddling. Take Clinton’s $275 billion, for example. What will that buy?
According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the United States has “4.12 million miles of road in the United States, according to the Federal Highway Administration, including Alaska and Hawaii. The core of the nation’s highway system is the 47,575 miles of Interstate Highways, which comprise just over 1 percent of highway mileage but carry one-quarter of all highway traffic.” [emphasis added]
The association provides a variety of estimates for road construction and reconstruction, varying by number of lanes, urban vs. rural, rebuilding vs. milling and repaving, and so on.
Using a middle-of-the-road (an appropriate cliché here, I suppose) figure of $5 million per mile, Clinton’s proposed spending would buy reconstruction of about 45,000 miles of highways — only 1 percent of America’s traffic-bearing byways.
That’s just highways. What about the rest of the nation’s overwhelming infrastructure woes? So far, we have failed to invest in them. Bridges. Dams. Ports. Chemical plants. Refineries. Wastewater systems. Clean water facilities. Airports. Railroads. Hazardous waste (and nuclear waste). Schools. Energy production. Public parks and recreation.
The American Society of Civil Engineers in its May 10 report estimates that failure to act on all infrastructure needs costs each American family about $3,400 annually. According to the society, the United States needs “an additional investment of $157 billion a year between now and 2020.” [emphasis added] The bill due now — in 2016 — is $1.6 trillion. Not acting in a meaningful way before 2020 would add another $1.1 trillion.
Jeffrey Goldfarb, writing for Thomson Reuters’ “Breaking Views,” says, “Multiple efforts to plow more money into the country’s infrastructure following the financial crisis have been steamrolled by conservative members of Congress. They fear adding to the national debt, which stands at some $19 trillion.”
But shouldn’t GOP conservatives, who likely would advocate for improving the nation’s economy to the benefit of business, see significant infrastructure spending as a worthwhile investment? Money’s cheap to borrow these days.
Dogmatically fixating on America’s balance sheet on this subject badly misses the point. Even assuming a conservative 5 percent return, most U.S. infrastructure investment probably would pay for itself easily. It costs Uncle Sam just 2.3 percent to borrow for 30 years. Factor in inflation and the real interest rate is close to zero. There would be potentially millions of new, well-paying jobs. The extent of the stimulating effect on the economy is debatable, but there almost certainly would be one. Those kinds of numbers should be easy enough for the party of business, the GOP, to understand.
A much bigger investment in America’s infrastructure than either Clinton or Trump propose is badly needed. Failure to act only adds many more billions to the trillion-dollar cost every day.