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Is U.S. Transportation Infrastructure Falling Down?

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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