Commentary

Politicians Love Ribbon-Cutting

While we hear a lot about crumbling infrastructure, some of our infrastructure is actually in great shape. A close look reveals that the infrastructure that is in best condition is funded by user fees, while infrastructure that is crumbling is funded by tax dollars.

This is because politicians prefer ribbons, not brooms. Ribbon-cutting projects provide more photo opportunities than do ongoing maintenance projects. And politicians make matters worse by favoring big, glitzy new projects over low-key ones that can do more at a far lower cost.

Higher federal spending would likely fund unnecessary new projects, not needed repairs.

For example, the Boston and Washington rail transit systems are rapidly deteriorating, with sometimes deadly consequences. Yet rather than rehabilitate these systems, politicians are building new rail lines that transit agencies can’t afford to maintain.

Politicians in other cities want to build expensive light-rail and streetcar lines that will actually increase congestion and impose huge maintenance costs on the future. A much smaller investment in traffic signal coordination would do far more to relieve congestion and save energy, yet few cities have bothered to coordinate all of their traffic signals.

Similarly, in 2008, Congress required Amtrak and other railroads to install “positive train control,” a system that likely would have prevented last Tuesday’s crash. In 2009 and 2010, Congress gave the president $10 billion for high-speed rail projects, yet not one dime of that money went to install positive train control in Amtrak’s high-speed corridor between Boston and Washington.

Fifty years ago, America’s transportation infrastructure was funded almost entirely out of user fees (or state taxes paid by users) and we had the world’s best transportation system. Since then, funding decisions have increasingly been made by politicians more interested in ribbons than brooms.

Higher federal spending would likely fund unnecessary new projects, not needed repairs. Rather than build more infrastructure we can’t afford to maintain, we need to return to a funding system based on user fees and not tax subsidies.

Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, is the author of Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.