The Great Infrastructure Myth

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to boost infrastructure investment by $550 billion-$1 trillion because there is supposedly an “infrastructure crisis.” Never mind that the number of structurally deficient bridges has been steadily declining for 25 years while pavement roughness has been improving. If there is a transportation “infrastructure crisis,” it exists due to a failure to maintain mass transit facilities and municipal streets, neither of which can be fixed by increasing federal capital spending (as a general rule, maintenance projects and non-National Highway System road segments are ineligible for these funds).


A sketch of this plan by Trump advisors Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro can be found here. The Trump transition website touts the $550 billion figure. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has pledged to “work together [with Trump] to quickly pass a robust infrastructure jobs bill.”

I won’t critique the financing specifics here, many of which are dubious. Instead, I’ll focus on the assumption underlying the assumptions: that more public infrastructure investment is a surefire way to boost the economy. Contrary to the dominant political narrative from members of both parties, which is parroted uncritically by most of the press, there is little evidence that these public works projects promote long-run economic growth.

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Infrastructure Isn’t Magic

As Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius, and Werner Rothengatter document in their indispensable Megaprojects and Risk, the large development effects claimed by project boosters rarely materialize (or are so small and diffuse that they are undetectable to researchers), operational viability is generally overstated, cost overruns of 50 to 100 percent are the norm, and demand forecasts are frequently off by 20 to 70 percent. These problems exist worldwide at all levels of development.

Any infrastructure plan that isn’t ultimately redistributive isn’t going to serve its social purpose.As economist Andrew M. Warner noted in a 2014 Internationa