Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Congress


US infrastructure spending, in four charts

If you've checked the news on the subject of American transportation infrastructure lately, you've probably heard that the sky is falling. It's true that Congress can't get its act together and pass a decent transportation bill, but the amount of money that's being spent isn't the problem so much as the fact that we're spending it on expanding highways instead of keeping the stuff we have in good shape.

Photo by Rhiannon Boyle on Flickr.

A new report from the Congressional Budget Office adds some useful perspective on public infrastructure spending (federal, state, and local, including water infrastructure) since 1956 target. Here are four major takeaways.

Infrastructure Spending is Fairly Stable as a Share of GDP

Measured as a share of Gross Domestic Product, public infrastructure spending has been fairly stable throughout the last six decades at about 2.4 percent, reports the CBO. The most recent bump came in 2009 and 2010 because of the stimulus package, when it rose to 2.7 percent. It has declined somewhat since 2011.

All graphs from the Congressional Budget Office.

But costs have climbed

Beginning in 2003, the cost of raw materials like concrete and asphalt increased more rapidly than the prices of other goods, the CBO reports. So if you factor in these specific costs, inflation-adjusted public infrastructure spending has declined about 9 percent since 2003 (the dark blue line).

Highways Are the Biggest Category of Spending

Of the $416 billion spent on infrastructure by federal, state and local governments in 2014, about 40 percent was dedicated to highways. About 16 percent went to transit and about a third went to water infrastructure.

Spending on Expansion Has Been Moving in the Right Direction

While state DOTs still spend many billions of dollars on highway expansions that erode their ability to maintain existing roads, the situation seems getting better. In recent years, a greater share of public infrastructure spending has been going to maintenance instead of expansion. However, it's not clear how much this trend applies to highways, since the CBO included transit and water infrastructure in this chart as well.

Crossposted from Streetsblog.


To get Congress' attention, America says #StandUp4Transportation

On Thursday, transportation advocates around America gathered to send a message to Congress: Pass a new surface transportation bill, and fix the nearly-broke highway trust fund. Advocates used the hashtag #StandUp4Transportation to get the message out.

All over the US, public officials helped get out the message by riding transit:

Locally, Capital Bikeshare, VRE, and Alexandria's DASH bus got in on the action.

So did Montgomery County RideOn, which hosted local elected officials throughout the day, including Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes.

The existing federal surface transportation bill, MAP-21, expires on May 31, and unless Congress intervenes, the highway trust fund will run out of money in less than eight weeks.

Visit to learn more, and to find out how you can help.


Should Congress be the ones to deliver more and better transportation infrastructure, or should we?

Now that the cromnibus crisis is crover, it's not too soon to remember that the current federal surface transportation spending authorization is going to run out in six months. Before things get down to the wire, we should remind ourselves of why surface transportation finance has become such a messy issue.

Results from a recent focus group study on transportation funding. Image by Lake Research Partners and Bellweather Research and Consulting.

Last summer, Congress allowed the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to nearly go bankrupt before providing a last-minute bailout. But that infusion from the General Fund, along with a dozen short-term extensions and authorizations, is the type of money that's kept federal surface transportation limping along since the last long-term authorization expired in 2009.

Ever since, the federal government has dispensed funds in a way that keeps infrastructure maintenance and construction on a flatline, short-term budget while requiring states and regions to provide plans for the long-term. It doesn't make sense.

The federal surface transportation program currently has no vision; it's a formula rather than a dynamic plan. And in five years of waiting, neither the Obama administration nor members of Congress have filled the void.

A big part of the problem is that transportation has lost the public's trust

Congress is unlikely to raise the gas tax even as prices plummet. We're all completely fed up with crumbling roads and incomplete streets. But instead of blaming a do-nothing Congress, transportation professionals need to confront the fact that actually no one wants to dedicate revenue to our work because the American transportation planning process is opaque and technocratic, wasteful, and unresponsive to public priorities. Some even call it elitist.

Our region has certainly fallen victim to this dynamic. In 2013, a series of focus groups led by the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in DC, Maryland, and Virginia showed that people are generally against attempts to increase revenue for transportation.

But after group participants considered alternatives, like increased tolling or a instituting a charge on vehicle miles traveled, support for increasing the gas tax rose from 21 percent to a majority of 57 percent. Even more telling, a whopping three-quarters of focus group participants wanted more money to go to transit, and 58 percent backed more funding for pedestrian and bicycle projects. Directing new revenue to roads came last, at 53 percent.

A recent national poll by a bipartisan pollster team (and sponsored by my employer, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy) found similar results across party lines, demographic groups, and geographic regions among likely 2016 voters. When asked to distribute a hypothetical $100 in tax dollars among highways, transit, and pedestrian and bike infrastructure, voters divided the money far more evenly among these three pots than Congress currently does.

There is a clear difference between the public's priorities and what the current planning process serves up. Voters of all kinds would support funding transportation infrastructure if we addressed this cognitive dissonance.

Crowdsourcing is a new way for the public to get involved in financing and supporting transportation projects

The federal government could take the wheel in realigning how it invests in transportation infrastructure to match public priorities. But is it likely to do so?

A lot of people are tired of waiting to find out. As an alternative to hoping for money from Washington, staff from the crowd-resourcing platform ioby recently gathered in DC with transit, walking, and bicycling advocates to brainstorm ways to apply their grassroots funding model to projects in the Washington region.

Participants noted that crowd sourcing doesn't just bring purchasing power, but also an opportunity for donors to show political and emotional buy-in for projects in their communities. And while crowdfunding isn't going to build a billion dollar bridge or transit line, a project leader in Memphis recently used the platform to raise matching funds to leverage $4.5 million in other funding to build a two-mile protected bike lane.

Perhaps this new form of civic engagement for transportation projects will help push our leaders toward a new vision for American surface transportation.

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