Repairing Roads Can End All Kinds of Gridlock

Democrats and Republicans share less common ground than at any point in living memory, and they are especially divided about our still-ailing economy. When Democrats propose additional economic stimulus, Republicans call for more cuts in government spending and regulation. And even though the effects of the Great Recession are still with us, political gridlock seems set to continue.

Yet recent public statements by bothPresident Obama and his probable Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, suggest a way forward. The president has long advocated infrastructure investment as a way to put Americans back to work. For his part, Mr. Romney recently warned that government spending cuts would “slow down the economy,” so he, too, has acknowledged the clear link between spending and employment.

Both men should thus be willing to take the one politically feasible step that could help mend the economy quickly: an accelerated program of infrastructure repairs. People in both parties already agree that these improvements are needed — even apart from their impact on employment.

In its 2009 assessment of the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure, theAmerican Society of Civil Engineers identified more than $2 trillion in long-overdue repairs. Of course, when maintenance is postponed, its cost rises rapidly. If Interstate highway repairs are delayed even briefly, damage from heavy trucks and winter weather can cause costs to rise several fold. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officialssubstandard roads also cause $335 in annual damage per vehicle on the road. Still more troubling, those roads cause many easily preventable deaths and injuries. What could possibly justify further delay?

Some people object to the additional government debt that infrastructure repairs would require. As austerity proponents like to say, governments can’t spend beyond their means indefinitely, any more than businesses or families can. It’s a fair statement if we’re talking about the long run. But in the short run, it’s utterly false. When prudent investment opportunities arise, families, businesses, and governments can and should spend more than they take in.

Consider an indebted family that must decide whether to borrow $5,000 to install additional insulation in its attic, a project that would reduce its utility bills by an average of $100 a month and require loan payments of $50 a month. In the short run, obviously, the project would increase the family’s indebtedness. But can there be any doubt that the family would be better off, in both the short and the long run, by going ahead with it? Even while making payments on the loan, it would have $50 more each month. And once the loan was paid off, it would have $100 a month more. What possible argument could be offered against this project?

The same logic applies to overdue infrastructure investments. Yes, paying for them requires more government debt. And while austerity advocates fret that such projects will impoverish our grandchildren, they concede that the investments can’t be postponed indefinitely, and that they’ll become much more expensive the longer we wait.