A common trait among economists is that they rarely agree on anything. However, the latest survey of economic experts by the Initiative on Global Markets of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business found unanimity on the value of infrastructure to the economy. When the 44 participants were presented with the proposition, “Because the U.S. has underspent on new projects, maintenance, or both, the federal government has an opportunity to increase average incomes by spending more on roads, railways, bridges and airports,” exactly zero disagreed. When further asked whether the U.S. has underspent on infrastructure, 36 agreed, 3 were uncertain and 5 did not respond. While such overwhelming agreement among economists might scare some people, it does suggest that the best economic researchers clearly have identified a relationship between infrastructure investments and economic growth. However, this same group of economists was skeptical about the efficiency of infrastructure programs. Nearly half agreed that past experience suggests that many infrastructure projects would have low or negative returns. As Austin Goolsbee put it, “hard to argue with the reality that some money will end up in powerful [Congressional] districts without much need for it.”
Given the perceived value, why has the U.S. apparently fallen behind in the infrastructure race? One theory is that fiscal pressure at all levels of government during and after the Great Recession caused governments to put off infrastructure investments in order to balance operating spending. Evidence for this shows up in data on the average age of government fixed assets, which have risen from 21.6 years to 22.4 years since 2007 (see figure).
Further complicating this has been a cloudy picture for funding sources directly related to infrastructure spending. The most prominent federal source, The Highway Trust Fund, has seen growth in gas excise tax revenue steadily erode as the 18.4 cents per gallon rate has been unchanged since 1993 while vehicle travel has declined. This year, Congress acted to prevent a deficit in the trust fund through a short-term fund transfer and by allowing companies to smooth pension returns, which would boost tax revenues in the short run. This clearly will not be a long-term fix. At the same time, state and local governments have faced very difficult fiscal conditions emerging from the Great Recession. For most states, revenues are only now returning to pre-recession levels. States that rely on excise taxes on fuel to fund infrastructure have seen the same erosion in revenues as the federal government, while states with sales taxes have suffered from declining gas purchases. In Illinois, gas tax receipts fell from $1.59 billion in 2007 to $1.21 billion in 2013 adjusted for inflation. Similarly, vehicle miles traveled per capita in the state have fallen by 6.5% since 2004. This inability of fuel tax revenues to keep pace with inflation has left dedicated infrastructure spending squeezed.
On November 3, the Chicago Fed will host a half-day program looking at key issues related to infrastructure. The first panel will start with a presentation from Therese McGuire of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, who chaired a Transportation Research Board study that examined the role of the infrastructure component of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 on economic outcomes. Joining McGuire will be Dan Wilson from the San Francisco Fed, who has written extensively on infrastructure and will present his work on measuring the economic impacts of highway infrastructure. (For an example, see http://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economic-letter/2012/november/highway-grants/.) Rounding out the panel will be Tracy Gordon, who recently joined the Urban Institute after a stint at the Council of Economic Advisors and will discuss how to incentivize state and local governments to do more to fund infrastructure.
The second panel will examine methods for paying for infrastructure. Ben Husch from the National Conference of State Legislatures will discuss the current status of federal infrastructure funding, including prospects for the Highway Trust Fund. Michigan state budget director, John Roberts, will discuss a comprehensive infrastructure funding proposal that was introduced by Governor Rick Snyder this year. This proposal would have boosted infrastructure funding for the state and allowed for future fuel taxes to be indexed to inflation. Joining us from Oregon will be James Whitty, who has been responsible for administering the state’s pilot effort for a vehicle mile tax. States are considering this type of tax as a possible replacement for traditional fuel taxes. Finally, public–private partnerships are frequently seen as key to expanding infrastructure funding. Stephen Beitler, CEO of the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, will discuss how this new approach is working.
The program will be held at the Chicago Fed on November 3, 2014, starting at 8:30 a.m. There is no charge to attend. To register, follow this link.