Maybe the convention and the debates will help, but at the moment, Mitt Romney is sounding increasingly ideologically incoherent to me.
I believe infrastructure is going to see very substantial investments over the coming decade. I'm talking about highways as well as rail and air and communications infrastructure.
Great, now Mr. Romney is trying to convince me that if I want better highways and rail I should pick him instead of Obama?
I guess maybe I can see the logic of this, if Mr. Romney has a plan (which, in fact, he does) to privatize Amtrak, maybe the private sector will do a better job running and investing in railroads than the government does. Same with privately operated highways such as the one proposed for Maine. The problem is that the candidate doesn't explain any of that. And since Democrats tend to use "investment" as a synonym for "government spending," it sounds like the Republican presidential candidate is promising that he, too, will spend lots of federal government money on trains and highways. That doesn't set up any kind of choice or ideological contrast with President Obama; it's just me-too-ism.
Since there's a lot of talk about how Mr. Romney is "data-driven," here's some highway-related data. In 2010, the federal Department of Transportation put out a report on the "conditions and performance" of the nation's roads as of 2008 (this being the federal government, it takes two years to find out what's going on). That report found:
Total highway expenditures by Federal, State, and local governments increased by 58.0 percent between 1997 and 2006, to $161.1 billion. Highway capital spending alone rose from $48.4 billion in 1997 to $78.7 billion in 2006, a 62.7 percent increase.
The report went on:
The increase in system rehabilitation investment since 1997 has had a positive effect on the physical condition of key subsets of the Nation's highway and bridge infrastructure. The National Highway System (NHS) includes those roads that are most important to interstate travel, economic expansion, and national defense. While the NHS makes up only 4.0 percent of total mileage, it carries 44.6 percent of total travel in the United States. The percentage of NHS VMT on pavements with "good" ride quality rose from 39 percent in 1997 to 57 percent in 2006. The share of NHS VMT on roads with "acceptable" ride quality (a lower standard that includes roads classified as "good") has also increased over this period, from 89 percent to 93 percent.
Got that? In 2008 93% of the vehicle miles traveled on the national highway system were on roads that were either good or acceptable quality.
And what happened since 2008? There was that $800 billion stimulus bill by which, Michael Grunwald reports in his new book, more than 41,000 miles of roads will be widened, paved, or improved. The numbers for highway spending since 2008, when 93% of the vehicle miles were on good or acceptable roads, look like this:
|2008||$91.1 billion||$45 billion|
|2009||$94.5 billion||$49 billion|
|2010||$100.2 billion||$48.8 billion|
If someone in the private sector wants to make "very substantial investments" on top of this, I wish them good luck. But as a voter trying to choose a president to spend my tax dollars wisely, I worry that one approaches a point at which one starts building highways to nowhere, or hires workers from politically-connected contractors to stand around repaving highways that don't particularly need it.