While much of Donald Trump's forthcoming infrastructure proposal is said to focus on encouraging local, state, and private investment, a big portion of it will still be traditional federal pork. That includes a likely $50 billion for rural infrastructure projects.
Yet according to a new study on highway conditions put out by the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that also publishes this website), rural America is the place that needs this money the least. With few exceptions, rural states' roadways are performing head and shoulders above their more urbanized peers.
The western states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho all ranked in the report's top 10. So did South Carolina and several Great Plains states—Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas. These states have maintained their rural arterial roads and interstates in better condition. They have also spent comparatively less per mile on building new roads and maintaining old ones.
North Dakota, which ranked number one in the rankings, spent $4,088 per mile to maintain its state-controlled roadways. New Jersey, by contrast, spent $208,736 per mile. South Carolina, which ranked fifth overall, spent $15,675 on capital and bridge disbursements per mile. Compare that to, well, New Jersey, which spent $919,040 per mile.
That isn't merely a matter of roads getting more wear and tear in the more densely populated states. "The rural states do tend to spend money better," says Baruch Feigenbaum, one of the authors of the report. "The rural states tend to spend their roadway dollars on state roadways." Conversely, many of the states that rank poorly devote a lot of federal highway dollars—and state gas tax dollars—to urban transit and to projects not related to transportation at all.
You shouldn't give rural politicians and bureaucrats too much credit for that, Feigenbaum notes. Their states just tend to lack the large urban projects that draw away dollars that should otherwise be spent on highways.
"In Wyoming," Feigenbaum says, "there are just not a lot of metropolitan needs."
Unsurprisingly, these rural states score better when it comes to congestion, too. Wyoming commuters spend only 5.86 hours in rush hour traffic each year. In New Jersey, the number is 72.53.
Again, this reflects a lack of major urban centers, not some amazing Wyoming ability to design congestion-free roads. It does, however, demonstrate that there is not much demand for major new road infrastructure projects in these states.
Despite this, Trump's infrastructure proposal looks likely to include a healthy slab of pork for rural states. According to a leaked "funding principles" document from January, 25 percent of the $200 billion federal appropriations component of the infrastructure plan will be awarded to rural governors with essentially no strings attached.
That has much more to do with politics than policy. As Feigenbaum says, "It's pretty obvious the rural funding is designed to get the bill through the Senate. It's not merit based."