How Paul Ryan’s Budget Would Further Undermine America’s Crumbling Infrastructure

Our guest blogger is Kristina Costa, a research assistant with the Doing What Works project and the economic policy department at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Since Saturday’s announcement of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as Mitt Romney’s running mate, a good deal of attention has been focused on what Ryan’s so-called “Path to Prosperity” budget would mean for programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

But Ryan’s proposed budget path also aims to reduce federal discretionary expenditures — including money spent on defense — to just 3.75 percent of GDP by 2050. That means dramatic cuts to programs for the poor, to primary and secondary education, to public safety, and to infrastructure spending. The Ryan budget proposes spending 25 percent less than the White House’s proposed budget does on transportation programs — just $78 billion per year.

America’s national infrastructure is famously in disrepair, with a GAO study finding as many as one in four bridges nationwide “deficient” in some way. A Center for American progress analysis earlier this year concluded that meeting our national infrastructure repair and improvement needs would require at least $129 billion per year in new investment, above current levels, for the next 10 years; other reports have put that number even higher.

Infrastructure spending creates jobs in construction and other sectors — every $1 billion in federal highway expenditures in 2007 supported as many as 30,000 jobs. And national infrastructure does more than move people — it moves stuff. While freight infrastructure — rail, inland waterways, and ports — may seem prosaic in comparison to wide-open highways or advanced high-speed rail, the goods movement system is of vital importance to our economy. And, like so many better-known examples of infrastructure failure and decay, America’s freight infrastructure is in trouble.

Freight bottlenecks and congestion cost businesses and consumers about $200 billion per year, as Keith Miller, Donna Cooper and I note in a new report released today. Total U.S. freight traffic is expected to increase more than 50 percent by 2040 — if the system can handle it.

Every day in Chicago, more than 500 freight trains attempt to make their way through the city alongside 800 passenger trains and high volumes of street traffic, meaning that it can take 30 hours for the average freight train to cross Chicago. By way of comparison, it takes only about 48 hours for a freight train to travel all the way from Los Angeles to Chicago.

On the nation’s system of inland waterways — canals and rivers that move 860 million tons of cargo per year — the majority of locks and dams are more than 50 years old. As of 2006, 47 percent of all locks on inland waterways were functionally obsolete.

And chronic underinvestment in our major ports has America falling behind in cargo capacity. Only two U.S. ports — Los Angeles and Long Beach — make the list of the top 20 container ports in the world in terms of capacity, whereas Chinese seaports comprise six of the top 10. The port of Shanghai alone has more container capacity than the top seven U.S. ports combined.

This is the time to expand investment in the nation’s critical infrastructure. Low interest rates and low materials costs should make job-creating and competitiveness-boosting investments attractive to policymakers.

Ryan claimed in a recent profile in the New Yorker, “We think government should do what it does really well, but that it has limits, and obviously within those limits are things like infrastructure, interstate highways, and airports.” But his budget plans put the lie to that extremely limited claim, dramatically slashing critical infrastructure investments while offering huge tax cuts to those at the top of the income scale. Our infrastructure deserves better than that.