Federal Funding on Transportation

I don’t have much to add to this graph. Politicians in our nation’s Capitol Building make a big deal of the need to become more competitive in business, especially vis-a-vis China and other emerging markets. Then at the same time I look at graphs like this (from here via here) and wonder what exactly their plan is. China has been spending 7 to 10% of GDP each of the past 15 years on infrastructure, and is set to eclipse our economy in size sometime in the next twenty years. Meanwhile economists say “economic growth depends on high-quality well-maintained infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, we are failing behind in every infrastructure quality ranking to our economic detriment. Decline is a choice, and our lawmakers are certainly choosing it.

37 Replies to “Infrastructure Decline”

  1. The difference becomes more apparent the more you travel. Shiny new subway systems all over Asia, with smooth well-maintained highways and sparkling new airport terminals. High speed rail is expanding all over.

    Then you come back to the US with its potholed roads, crowded and outdated airports, poor public transit, and pathetic rail network. You really wonder where it’s all headed, and how bad it has to get before people decide on a change.

    1. Yeah, China has some great new infrastructure (in it’s Coastal cities) but also has a totalitarian government and over 100 million people living at or below the poverty line. With hundreds of millions more living above it, but still suffering through what would be considered crippling poverty here in the states.

      It’s easy to build large projects when you can unilaterally dictate where and how, have access to near slave labor, and don’t worry about the well being of a large segment of your population.

      1. Easy to say that about China, but what about South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany,….

      2. Sad. I’m assuming you’re an American, but maybe you are completely unaware of some of the crippling poverty that is happening right here in the U.S. I don’t think we’re really that far ahead China when you look at the state of many places here in the states. We have shiny here, but we also have a lot of devastated communities.

      3. I’m sorry but that is such a mind blowingly ignorant statement I really don’t know where to start. The poor in America are better off than most of the middle class outside the Industrialized North.

    2. Change “pathetic rail network” to “pathetic passenger rail network” and you’ve got it right. The Economist points out that America’s freight railroad system is the best in the world – something to be envied. Obviously, the system in place to efficiently move goods, including a whole lot of coal, around the country at speeds of up to 50 or so isn’t going to work well for passenger rail.

      1. I don’t think there’s anything “obvious” about that, VBD. It may be true, but not necessarily logically consequent.

      2. Actually our freight rail network is the largest in the world, but possibly not the best. We have only a fraction of the rail lines we once had and they’re in need of repair and expansion. Without investment in the infrastructure the current amount of track and timeslots will not be adequate for much longer. The only thing that’s helped recently is having a recession. I’m not going to look up the numbers this second but the amount of track we used to have was on the order of 5x what we have now. Later when I have time I’ll dig up those numbers.

      3. I’m inclined to agree with their statement regarding being the best in the world for freight. Our railroads move a LOT of stuff around and significantly reduce the amount of energy needed to move that stuff around. That said, “best” is awfully subjective. I frankly don’t understand why we can’t come up with a system that allows freight and passenger rail to intermingle safely.

        I’m not a fan of pie in the sky high speed rail plans, given the large distances to cover and the enormous costs involved. That said, Washington appears to be winning the money needed to make the incremental changes needed to speed things up. Now, if we could just find some money to deal with those mud slides…

      4. But, the freight railroads are finally waking up to the benefits of passenger rail. When their executives give lip service to improving passenger rail, it’s good PR that makes people feel better about the company. And they can go to Congress and ask for money to fund things they want to do anyway (to improve the freight network), if they can show that it would also benefit passenger rail. Things like improving the freight tracks, or building a new passenger track next to the freight track (which allows both kinds of trains to run simultaneously at different speeds).

      5. I remember that Economist article and wholeheartedly agree with it.

        One of the worst ways we could screw up a passenger rail project would be to inadvertently hurt our freight rail system – and thus shift even more cross-country freight to over-the-road trucks.

        It’s true we’ve have lost a lot of rail mileage over the past half-century, but most of that lost trackage is in thousands of tiny local lines. The long haul cross-country lines between intermodal hubs are really the important ones, in the long term. The mode-agnostic containerization of shipping has seriously helped rail transport – it’s easy and efficient to take a container off a boat, drop it on a train, haul it 2000 miles cross-country, drop it onto a semi-trailer, and then tow it the last hundred.

        Things have really bounced back for American freight rail over the past 2 or 3 decades; as obsolete, unused lines are removed, capacity is being added at system bottlenecks.

        It’s not perfect, and the system needs speedier investment. But it’s a very valuable national asset that we should be sure to protect and cultivate.

      6. How great corporate power shadows Gregoire on coal shipments to China

        U.S. laws limit the burning of coal here, and Washington state has a strong green influence. Passenger rail in Seattle and beyond would suffer consequences from shipments to Bellingham. But the financial firepower lined up in favor of shipping coal from Washington ports to China is gigantic.

        I’m guessing this is because the unit coal trains would be coming from Montana via the Gorge and then using the already near capacity mainly from the Columbia up to Bellingham.

  2. When “politicians in our nation’s capital” make a big deal of the need to become more comptetitive in business, they mostly mean “we need to lower our wages/bust our unions/weaken our labor protections”. At least that’s what the current crop mean.

  3. Love the graphic – shows the decline began(no surprise) with the Presidency or RW Reagan, and has continued mostly unabated for 30 years now. It’ll take at least twice that to catch up and then begin to move forward by mid-century, hopefully.

    1. 3/10 % GDP swing over three decades is not very alarming. Now show a graph of overall GDP for the same period, and total spending on infrastructure to get a clearer picture of what is going on.
      Then you can compare how America is ‘falling apart’.

      1. The method you’re suggesting (i.e. look at infrastructure spending in real dollars) doesn’t make much sense to me. First, because infrastructure costs tend to rise faster than inflation. Second, because a growing population and economy implies heavier burdens on the infrastructure we have (the main reason it’s usually looked at as a % of GDP).

        While China and other developing countries aren’t really fair comparisons, as they are spending extra to catch up, the gap between the US and the rest of the developed world is striking.

        To speak to the “Falling apart” comment, it can be easily illustrated by splitting capital budgets from maintenance & operations budgets. This article does that (graph #2) You can say we’re spending less because our system is already built, but our maintenance spending has been declining for decades. A big quote from the article:

        In 2006 America spent more than twice as much per person as Britain on new construction; but Britain spent 23% more per person maintaining its roads.

        While I have no love for Ronnie, this decline predates his administration by about 2 decades. However, prior to Reagan, Main/Op budgets were relatively steady at 2% of GDP. During/after, it gradually slides down to 1.5%.

  4. It would be interesting to know to what extent this reflects the decline in spending on new freeways since the 1980s, and/or the enormous expansion of high-tech sectors, which presumably has had the effect of reducing the transportation sector as a portion of the whole.

  5. The madding thing is we can fix this should we choose to do.

    Here’s my proposal:
    1Set up an infrastructure bank. Allow cities, counties, states, etc to borrow at the same rates as the Federal Government. Apply some cost/benefit criteria to loan applications to keep the program from being a free-for-all but don’t require quite as much paperwork as say a New Starts grant application. Like floating a bond issue the entity making the application would have to show how they plan to repay the loans. New projects and maintenance should be evaluated on an equal basis. Shift much of the current Federal infrastructure spending to a program that forgives some portion of the loans instead of giving a project grant money.

    Beyond that we need to drastically cut defense spending in order to free up money for other budget priorities.

  6. This points out the need for infrastructure projects to be as cost-effective as possible. We need to move the greatest number of people, and greatest amount of freight, for the lowest cost possible.

    In our area, Link light rail, and Sounder Commuter rail are just stupidly expensive, as is the deep-bore tunnel. Had those billions of dollars been spent on infrastructure that is cost-effective, we would be much better off than we are. These vanity projects are a large part of the reason why our roads and bridges are falling into disrepair.

      1. Buses instead of Link light rail, or Sounder for one.

        Viaduct instead of bored tunnel.

        Forget the Mercer project — $100 million for a “road diet” on Valley, and to “prettify” Mercer.

    1. What would your ideal system look like? How many buses would you add, where would you build new BRT lanes, what frequencies and timespans would they run?

      How would you deal with the 71/72/73 problem, where the buses are severely overcrowded even with 7 minute frequency and articulated buses? Where would you find spare capacity on I-5 and Eastlake for more buses? Note that the express lanes (which do have capacity) are unidirectional, and that the 520 reorganization may have an exit to the express lanes which would increase traffic there.

      How would you deal with the congestion on I-90 that slows down the 550 in the reverse commute?

      1. Presumably, everyone will telecommute from their cars while stuck in induced demand on all the new freeways.

      2. 7-minute frequency is nothing for buses. Add more buses. They used to run 90 buses per hour per direction in the downtown tunnel, and its capacity is about 120 buses per hour per direction. At one time, when that tunnel was closed, during peak hours they had around 120 buses per hour per direction on 3rd Ave.

        Buses take cars off roads. How is it possible you don’t understand that? Therefore, adding buses, makes I-5, or any street LESS congested. More buses on I-90 would reduce the number of cars, relieving congestion.

        Seriously, you really can’t understand that one bus takes less room on a road than 50 or more cars? Really??

        Allow me to draw you a picture:


        Do you see this photo of Mercer Street completey full of motor vehicles? There are approximately 75 vehicles visible in the photo. Let’s say they are carrying about 120 passengers, total. 120 people could fit easily on 2 articluated buses. So, to carry the same number of passengers, would require only two buses, instead of these 75 cars.

        Now, don’t you think that this street would be less congested with 2 buses in this block, than with the 75 vehicles you see here?

      3. Don’t pretend that you actually are in favor of adding bus service. You only want more people to ride the bus so you have more reasons to complain about freeloading transit users that don’t “pay their own way” like you supposedly do.

      4. I think Mike Orr’s question stands: if you add more buses to the 71/72/73, how do the buses get back to their northern terminals to make another run? Do they run in I-5 traffic? Or in Eastlake traffic? Assuming the return trip takes twice as long as the direct trip, how many bus drivers do you need to run the 71/72/73 every 4 minutes, say? And how do you deal with the bunching issues that already plague the 71/72/73 at 7 minute frequencies?

        I’ve never heard of a solution that provides high-frequency, high-capacity transit between two points with buses that doesn’t also include building extensive infrastructure. SWIFT doesn’t count (though it is nice), because its frequency and capacity are too low to bump up against the issues Mike Orr highlighted above.

      5. “adding buses, makes I-5, or any street LESS congested.”

        That’s true but it’s only partly relevant. You can replace 55 cars with one bus only if you identify 55 drivers who all have the same origin and destination. They have to live near the endpoints or have convenient bus transfers to the endpoints. We should identify more of these cars and provide buses for them, but that won’t get rid of most of the cars who are going from scattered origins/destinations or outside the region.

        But this doesn’t solve the UW problem. The UW problem is that many bus riders and would-be riders suffer overcrowding and congestion. Only a few of these people currently drive that trip, so providing more buses will not decrease congestion, it’ll increase it. Link is like a new freeway: it bypasses the congestion completely. It costs a lot, but building a grade-separated roadway for BRT would also cost a lot.

        You’re focusing solely on whether Link will take cars off the freeway or Eastlake, but there are other benefits to Link beyond that. It runs at 55 mph regardless of traffic, it has many doors and plenty of capacity, it gives a smoother ride, etc. And because Link can serve more stations in the same time a bus can serve fewer stations (unless it had a dedicated roadway like Link), it can run end-to-end with more frequency, which is a significant benefit to the neighborhoods. There are people who won’t take a bus that runs every 30 minutes, but will take a train that runs every 10 minutes.

    2. It’s necessary to look at more than just the cost of a project and only pick the lowest cost option. The lowest cost option isn’t always the most effective at moving the most people and products. Lowest cost shouldn’t always be the most important factor in deciding future investment. I can get a lunch for 99 cents or I can spend more and get more bang for my buck. Cheapest isn’t always best. Voters in the Puget Sound region have chosen to spend more and hopefully get more than just nickel and dime band-aid solutions to our growing transportation problems. I’m betting that 20 years from now it will be great fun to tell stories to our kids about the people who were opposed to light rail and fast trains and how they wanted us all to get around in slow buses or drive everywhere in gas gulping vehicles.

      1. 20 years from now, everyone will be acknowledging that Link light rail was an unblieveably stupid waste of money. Many people already understand that.

        SWIFT rapid bus cost under $2 million per mile.

        Central Link cost about $160 million per mile.

        U-Link is costing about $600 million per mile.

        And the operating cost per passenger mile is lower for SWIFT than for Link light rail.

  7. China spends that much because they are moving from a poverty-wracked agrarian society to a rich, industrial/information economy. There are such large sections outside of the cities that lack the basics.

    The US spending 10% on infrastructure would be silly, unless we want to try and be Japan-like and build pointlessly redundant highways and railways as a stimulus maneuver.

    Around a 1%/year sounds right for current situation in the US.

    1. I have read articles in which the authors think that China is creating a huge infrastructure bubble which will burst, with worse results than the recent housing bubble in the U.S. China is racking up enormous debt with the HSR projects, for example. What that is going to mean for their economy in the future remains to be seen.

      1. I’ve also read this, although the China bubble is larger than just infrastructure – that’s a tiny piece of it. But the central government in China ALSO thinks they’re in a bubble, and are trying to bring it down gently, and intentionally trying to slow their economic growth

      2. What’s an infrastructure “bubble”? In the dotcom bubble, tons of fiber optic were laid anticipating explosive growth in lucrative long-distance services. But technological change lowered the cost of long distance 90% and nobody wanted their product anymore. The dotcom bust finally shut their doors and the cables remained intact but unused and unneeded. Then in the next decade the growth of streaming video and audio and smartphones absorbed the capacity of the cables. So an infrastructure bubble can cause a problem for the companies and their workers, but society as a whole is better off in the long run. That’s if the infrastructure is intrinsically useful. Trains to nowhere would not be useful, but trains to somewhere will eventually be used, especially as oil becomes more scarce or the peaceful countries become fed up with being dependent on mideast oil and their dodgy regimes.

      3. There’s actually a huge amount of dark fiber in the ground < /plugmode > waiting to be used:

        the ongoing development of the optical transmission technology known as dense wave division multiplexing (DWDM) allowed a single-fiber pair to carry many more channels of information in parallel. This development increased the capacity of the new fiber-optic infrastructure geometrically, with a single-fiber pair now capable of carrying well over a Terabit per second of aggregate data.

    2. Forget China, everyone knows 10% is simply because they’re trying to catch up from nothing.

      The gap is still striking, though, when you only compare to developed countries. Especially if you set aside capital costs and only look at maintainable budgets.

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