According to Engineering News Record (yes, I know I read a lot of weird shit–blame this one on my spouse, who subscribes),
A congressionally mandated study is recommending a dramatic increase in current highway spending to launch an ambitious new program to upgrade and modernize the aging, sometimes congested, Interstate Highway System. The report also calls for a hike in the federal gas tax to help pay for the plan.
It’s hard to fault this conclusion; the Interstate Highway System, like most of America’s infrastructure, is in indefensible disrepair. But looking at only one element of an integrated transportation system is like blaming all the dysfunctions of our broken government on Trump, without reference to the broken political system that facilitated his emergence and election. (Yes, we need to “fix” the Presidency by getting rid of the current occupant ASAP, but we also need to address gerrymandering, vote suppression, the Electoral College, the filibuster…)
Transportation, like so much else in our rapidly changing world, is undergoing all sorts of changes. A report that focuses only on highways (and not all highways, at that) without considering the present and future operation of the entire transportation system– air, rail (freight & passenger), state roads, etc.–misses much of the picture.
What sorts of transportation should policies promote? (For that matter, have any policies demonstrated the ability to shift those preferences? How? And which ones?)
What would the evidence tell us if we were asking the right (systemic) questions? What are the relative costs and benefits of shipping goods via rail versus truck, for example? (Data I’ve seen would suggest that we put more money into rail.) How do different modes of transit affect the environment? Which transportation methods are most energy efficient? What is the return on investment of repairs to highways versus repairs and upgrades to rail and air?
I am definitely not suggesting that we allow our Interstates to fall into further disrepair while we debate our approach to a more rational transportation policy, but America has a tendency to pay for mansions where cabins are all we need, especially when policymakers are hiring private contractors who can be expected to return the favor and support those policymakers when the next election comes around.
When lots of money has been spent on something, there’s a natural incentive to use it. (Ask any woman who bought an expensive dress that she subsequently realizes was a mistake.) It’s human nature to look for reasons justifying the original decisions–and to ignore alternatives that might be more cost-effective , convenient or make more economic sense.
If we want to base policy on sound evidence (which I’m not at all sure we do…),if we want good data gathered from sound research to inform our decision-making, it helps to start by asking the right question.
We desperately need a comprehensive analysis of America’s infrastructure. All of it.