11.1.17

ECONOMICS, THE DISMAL SCIENCE.

Brookings's Clifford Winston argues that there's more to infrastructure than throwing money at hero projects.
“Trying to spend our way out of infrastructure troubles is misguided,” Winston argues. “We need to make more efficient use of the infrastructure we have now, and then think carefully about additional spending using cost-benefit analysis.”

Before Winston will even talk about spending more on roads, for example, he wants to talk about who is using them and when. And he’s passionate about changing prices to reduce congestion and better pay for wear and tear.

Trucks, he says, should pay a per axleweight tax to encourage more axles and thereby greatly reduce wear. Congestion pricing should be used to encourage better traffic flow, starting with HOT lanes that combine car pools and tolls into one lane. HOT lanes use scanning technology so drivers never need to slow down, and prices rise and fall based on congestion.

Winston also argues that roads should be built from more durable materials that require more upfront investment in the long run, and new roads need to be built with autonomous vehicles in mind.

Autonomous vehicles, he argues, will expand the highway capacity — cars can get closer together, traffic flow will improve, and they won’t rubberneck at accidents. (Ironically, autonomous vehicles also threaten whole sectors of employment, from trucking and delivery to taxis.)

“The engineering mentality of just spending more money is not sustainable or efficient,” Winston said.

Winston also favors privatization where possible, and he hopes that private sector technologies will push government infrastructure to make needed changes.

“Pigs are going to fly before these guys do this,” Winston said. “This is stuff we’ve been talking about forever. They’re just not going to do it. Status quo bias is just very powerful.”

To be clear, Winston is not saying that major infrastructure spending is not in order. He is simply arguing that any money spent should be part of a comprehensive plan, not political expedience.

In addition to not spending money without a plan, a core argument of economists like Winston is that infrastructure will be best maintained and improved when it internalizes the cost of use. That is, users should be paying now for their share of both congestion and wear and tear, with user fees directed to replacements and upgrades.
Count among the status quo bias the resistance in states that don't yet have turnpikes to implementing tolling.  Now, if the freight railroads and the Higher Speed Trains people can get their act together, perhaps we'll have more intermodal corridors to get the trailers, no matter how many axles, off the roads.

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