Debating the Cost of Infrastructure
Investment or Superfluous Spending
Herbert M Barber, Jr, PhD, PhD
Donald J. Trump, president of these United States of America, has declared war on established politics as we know it. To some extent, every politician does. Campaigns are won or lost on the backs of what sometimes become broken promises. As for President Trump, his claim to fame in political circles and the American public was gained by promising to dismantle deeply seated governmental and political structures that inhibit, and often prohibit, the United States from moving forward. He also staked his claim on growing the economy via job creation and other stimuli, such as infrastructure investment. In fact, he staked that claim on a one trillion-dollar infrastructure investment. While this is less than one quarter what the American Society of Civil Engineers maintains is required for the US to have healthy infrastructure ($4.6 trillion, 2015 dollars, constant, needed through 2025), many, many politicians, engineers, advocates, and others loudly boast such spending, though less than required, will promote economic output in the US. Unfortunately, they make such claims without regard to econometric analyses. To this end, we will review these claims through this paper.
Examining Findings from ASCE
Before we discuss the impact infrastructure spending has on the US economy, we must first examine the available data and/or findings generated, as we would on any similar undertaking. Here is the abbreviated version of what we learned when reviewing ASCE’s recent work regrading infrastructure need.
In ASCE’s 2017 report on the state of infrastructure, the Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, engineers depicted US infrastructure as a tangled web of twisted steel and crumbled concrete, giving infrastructure in the US an overall grade of D+. The highest grade given any sector of infrastructure was a B, and that was only in one sector—rail. In fact, every four years ASCE scores US infrastructure as poor, very poor. Worse, that single B ASCE awarded the rail sector is the highest grade it has awarded any sector since it awarded a B in the “water resources” sector in 1988, the first year of record. Since 1988, no As have been awarded, and only two Bs have been awarded; all other grades have been worse, usually far worse, as in the D range. This, of course, tends to make us question the 1) reality of infrastructure decay in America, 2) validity of ASCE’s findings, 3) scoring methodologies employed by ASCE, or 4) scientific measurement backgrounds of those drawing these conclusions.
Consider these grades as if they were from a course you took in college. If the final grades averaged a D course after course, as ASCE always grades infrastructure in the US, there is a definitive problem somewhere, either with the students, the professor, the grader, or the teaching methodology employed. In any regard, there exists a serious problem… somewhere. Nonetheless, consider ASCE’s infrastructure grades.