HIGHWAY SPENDING, CONT'D I
In response to my column on highway spending, several readers have asked essentially the same question: If spending goes for maintenance now, rather than new roads, shouldn't we expect the return to go down--and shouldn't we use "maintaining" productivity, rather than increasing it, as the measure of success? That's a good point.
Unfortunately, we still do spend lots and lots of money on new construction. It goes to low-value roads with porkbarrel appeal. It also subsidizes neighborhood amenities like the Katy Trail and disamenities like the McKinney Avenue trolley, just to mention two in my own neighborhod. (I would dearly love to see this beautiful bridge by Santiago Calatrava rise over the Trinity River, but it's not clear why anyone outside Dallas should pay for it.)
New spending also ignores all the "micro allocative efficiencies" that transportation economists like Cliff Winston spend most of their time worrying about: Could pricing make roads more productive? Should we target spending and construction toward the most congested areas? Are the roads the right thickness? Should cars and trucks be segregated? Are construction costs artificially high because of Davis-Bacon and other political constraints? Are we building too many roads in rural areas? What is the right tradeoff between capital costs and maintenance? And so forth... These questions simply don't get asked, because highway spending is entirely political. It isn't about making the roads more efficient.