Infrastructure spending

July 10, 2008

This morning I'm testifying before the Senate Finance Committee on infrastructure investment. My statement can be found here. The testimony occurs at a time when burgeoning congestion on the nations transportation networks and concerns that the nation is underinvesting in its physical infrastructure have focused attention on the federal governments role in sustaining that infrastructure. The testimony defines "infrastructure" as including transportation, utilities, and some other public facilities. The nation currently invests more than $400 billion per year in infrastructure defined this way, and about $60 billion of that amount is funded by the federal government each year, primarily for highways and other transportation networks. The testimony makes the following key points:

  • Estimates from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and other sources indicate that additional spending of up to tens of billions of dollars each year on transportation infrastructure projects could be justified. Some of that spending would simply maintain the current performance of existing infrastructure; other projects would improve performance to the extent that the economic benefits exceeded the costs (although some projects would have net benefits that were smaller than those that could be obtained from spending on items besides infrastructure).
  • Although the rationale for some additional spending is probably strong, the economic returns on specific projects vary widely. Accordingly, even if the Congress were to increase spending, it would be important to identify which projects provided the largest potential benefit from limited budgetary resources.
  • Some of the demand for additional spending on infrastructure could be met by providing incentives to use existing infrastructure more efficiently and by devoting current budgetary resources to their highest valued uses. For example, the Department of Transportation has reported that the demand for new spending on highways could be reduced by as much as $20 billion annually if congestion pricing were implemented to encourage efficient use of existing infrastructure.
  • A special-purpose entity, such as a federally chartered infrastructure bank, could provide funding for infrastructure outside of the annual appropriation process but would not be a source of free money: Any reduction in the federal shares of project costs (obtained by reducing grant sizes or by shifting from grants to loans or loan guarantees with smaller subsidy costs) would require greater shares to be borne by project users, state or local taxpayers, or both.

In addition, attentive readers will note that in what I believe to be a first for CBO, the testimony includes a few lines of poetry (see footnote 47). These lines appear in response to a comment from David Brooks of the New York Times at a public forum that CBO reports don't have enough "romance" in them; when I asked him what he possibly meant by that comment, he suggested that CBO documents could include some poetry. Footnote 47 was the best we could do for now.