Focus Airport Spending On Busy Airports

Brad Plumer explains on how the addled structure of Congress makes it impossible to fix airport delays in any kind of reasonably cost-effective manner:

Nationwide, about 37 percent of all delays can be chalked up to outdated technology. In some cities, it’s worse: Two-thirds of all airport delays in the New York City area are due to air-traffic control, and, in an irritating game of dominoes, those delays then trigger delays at other airports across the country. In 2007, the Joint Economic Committee pegged the cost of all this waiting at $41 billion per year. Building America’s Future is essentially arguing that having Congress spend more money on infrastructure could, in many cases, pay for itself.

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Here’s one reason, though, all may not go as planned: Although the worst delays are concentrated in the busiest metro areas, Congress tends to sprinkle money for improvements on as many localities as possible. In 2009, for instance, the FAA spent $2.6 billion on airport improvements, but only one-quarter of that money went to the country’s largest airline hubs (which, in sum, serve about three-quarters of traffic). It’s good to be a small state with disproportionate representation.

I think people sometimes take undue solace from the fact that the imbalanced representation of the U.S. Senate doesn’t have a particular partisan skew. That just shows that the parties are able to adjust to the electoral landscape that exists. The skew has real policy consequences that are at times quite costly. If we spend infrastructure money inefficiently, we end up spending too little on the places that matter most. Then since our spending doesn’t produce as much in the way of concrete gains as it should, we tend to get cynical and underinvest.