1. The title of your latest report about U.S. infrastructure, Not Everything Is Broken, seems more optimistic than messages we usually hear. Is the work optimistic, and, if so, how so?
I like to think that the work is more realistic than optimistic. The data do not support a picture of precipitous decline in national spending on the physical condition of transportation and water infrastructure. Big, unfounded claims that everything is falling apart draw attention away from the more-pressing problems that really do require a federal role.
In fact, the United States does need to better maintain, modernize, innovate, and build resilience into our infrastructure, but, to be effective, the federal government should focus on problems that cannot easily be fixed by state and local governments alone. This means that an across-the-board ramp-up of federal spending is unlikely to address the infrastructure problems that need fixing. Lasting changes will require thoughtful consideration of targeted spending priorities, policy constraints, and regional differences.
2. Is this true for the Gulf States region as well, and, if so, how so?
Regions vary in their needs. Each region ought to have its own priorities for investment that will lead to economic growth, greater resilience to natural disasters, improved environmental quality, and other measures of well-being. Investment needs in the Northeast are likely to be quite different from those of the Gulf States, the Midwest, or the Pacific Northwest.
The Gulf States region plays a vital role in our national economy through its ports, waterways, and industrial base. Rather than thinking state by state, leaders in the Gulf States should be asking what types of federal investments in infrastructure would strengthen the competitiveness and well-being of the region at large. Funding is limited, so there’s real value in establishing priorities and pursuing the projects likely to deliver the greatest benefits.
3. How should policymakers act on the findings of this research?
One of the most-important recommendations we offer to the federal government is to develop a long-term vision and game plan for thinking about what it can and should do. It is critical that the federal government set priorities and align its spending and tax policies to address national and regional needs and projects that matter most—and that state and local governments cannot be expected to fulfill on their own. This approach would be in marked contrast to the unfocused federal spending across all types of infrastructure and reliance on shovel-ready projects as was done in the stimulus package of 2009.
There are a number of infrastructure problems that need attention. For example, more than 60 percent of the interstate highway system was built before 1970, and a renewed national road network is needed no less now than it was in the 1950s. Freight hubs connecting rail, roads, and ports around the country are congested and reaching their limits. Urban stormwater runoff in coastal and inland cities is a huge challenge that is likely to get worse. We can expect more flooding disasters like the one in Houston last year. There are many cities in the United States with storm drainage systems that cannot handle more-intense rainfall.
Although the federal government cannot pay to fix everything, it should have a coherent vision of how it can use partnerships with state and local governments and the private sector to facilitate economic growth, address regional equity, and continue to protect public health and environmental quality.
4. How did you become involved in the Not Everything Is Broken project?
In early 2016, I proposed this study as a RAND-initiated research project, anticipating that infrastructure policy was likely to be on the agenda of a new administration beginning in 2017, regardless of which candidate ended up winning the election. It’s an area of public policy that I think receives inadequate attention, and it’s one that I have worked on, on and off, for nearly four decades.