Is U.S. Transportation Infrastructure Falling Down?
By Randal O’Toole
In August 2007, the Interstate-35W bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis suddenly collapsed, killing 13 people. The event led many to decry the state of the nation’s infrastructure, and stress the need for more federal funding to maintain and repair that infrastructure.
“One-third of the bridges in the United States should have a sign that says, ‘Use at your own risk,’” reported CBS News.
As it turned out, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the bridge collapsed due to a design flaw, not a maintenance failure. Yet some people still use this event as an example of why the federal government should increase spending on transportation infrastructure.
How Infrastructure Is Funded. Fifty years ago, almost all transportation in America was paid for out of user fees, not taxes. Railroads were private and less than 6 percent of America’s rail lines had been built with federal subsidies. Most urban transit systems were private, as were intercity buses. Most airports were public but had been paid for with airport landing fees. Similarly, most highways were public but had been paid for with tolls, gas taxes and other user fees.
Congress weakened the emphasis on user fees in 1964 by offering cities capital grants for urban transit if the cities took over private transit systems. In less than a decade, this once-private industry had been almost entirely taken over by government. In 1982, Congress began diverting some gas taxes and other highway user fees to transit, weakening the connection between user fees and highway agencies as well. User fees still pay for nearly all of the costs of federal and state highways, but they cover less than a quarter of the costs of transit.
Some transit funds are distributed using formulas, but metropolitan areas compete for other grants. In theory, individual metropolitan areas submit proposals to spend these funds and the Federal Transit Administration allocates the funds to the metropolitan areas that need them most or can use them most effectively. In practice, a lot of politics goes into the distribution of these funds.
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