Politicians and interest groups claim America's highways and bridges are falling apart— "crumbling," we're sometimes told. My efforts to assess the situation suggest they are not. Others—including researchers from the Federal Reserve and the National Bureau of Economic Research—have drawn similar conclusions. Yet the new "bipartisan infrastructure bill" plows ahead with the same old sound bites and spending plans.
Even if it all passes, in five years, again, expect to hear cries for more spending to solve our phantom highway and bridge crisis. It is long past time to shift more of the responsibility for highways and bridges to the states, where the costs and benefits to users can be better evaluated.
Using an objective and standard engineering measure of highway surface conditions provided by the Department of Transportation, I calculated, conservatively, the percentage of highways and roads in poor condition in each state in 2014 and 2018 (the most recent data available). In contrast to broad general statements about crumbling infrastructure, the data show only modest changes during this period.
Rural and urban interstates showed small improvements. In 2018, less than 2 percent of rural and 4.5 percent of urban interstates were in poor condition. About 3.5 percent of rural freeways (which are not interstates) and less than 6 percent of rural "main roads" were in poor condition. Main roads in urban areas remain the biggest problem, with about 23 percent in poor condition, but even this shows a small improvement from 2014.
Still, large differences between states remain. For example, in 2018, New Hampshire and Arizona had less than 1 and 2 percent of urban interstates in poor condition, respectively. Hawaii and California had nearly 20 and 8 percent in poor condition. We can observe similar state differences in other highways and roads, in both urban and rural areas.
Furthermore, using Department of Transportation data based on annual inspections of bridges, I was able to compare bridge conditions in 2019 (the most recent data available) to 2014. The percent rated to be in poor shape declined from a little over 7 percent in 2014 to about 6 percent in 2019. Overall, bridges in the United States have improved, but as with roads, differences across states remain. In 2019, only 1 percent of Nevada's bridges were in poor condition, while Illinois had more than 12 percent in poor condition.
Given the formula-based allocation of federal dollars—each state receives at least 95 percent of federal fuel taxes collected within its borders—federal funding will do little to reduce these state differences. Politicians in states where highways and bridges are in good condition will not be willing to give up federal funds to help other states. They will argue for their "fair" share of federal fuel and general tax revenues.
While it is easy to find examples of infrastructure in need of work in a nation as large as ours, the data simply do not show that highway and road surfaces are deteriorating quickly. The share of bridges in poor shape has declined. In fact, this is true going back to 2005. These figures do not paint a picture of crumbling highways and bridges.
Congress should ditch the highway portion of the plan and instead shift all regional and local highway and bridge maintenance (and construction) responsibilities back to the states and cities. The federal government would continue to maintain national highways and the interstate highway system.
Each state can set a fuel tax sufficient to fund its own highway and bridge work. The federal fuel tax should be set at a level to fund the continued maintenance, and as needed, the expansion of interstate and national highways in growing areas of the country. The federal fuel tax could thus be lowered to fund the smaller federal transportation responsibilities.
Washington politicians prefer to paint a dark picture of America's infrastructure. This way, not only can they take credit for sending federal funds to support projects in their states, but they can run for reelection as someone working to solve the country's phantom highway and bridge crisis.