New room being added to house
Rik W. Hafer

Before adding a room onto your house, wouldn’t you ask yourself if the expected benefit of the addition will be greater than the projected cost (in monthly loan payments)? Most rational homeowners would. So why is this simple justification often missing when it comes to public projects such as new bridges or new roads?

The Show-Me Institute has weighed in on such public projects, from the Stan Span to trolley systems in University City and Kansas City. In each instance we asked, just as you would before taking out that home-improvement loan, whether the projected benefit of the project was greater than the projected costs borne by taxpayers. And even if we make the somewhat dangerous assumption that the costs won’t increase as the project goes on, the answer too often is “no.”

Our conclusions are shared by Harvard economics Professor Edward Glaeser. In a recent article that appeared in the City Journal, Glaeser exposes the fairy tale of infrastructure investment as an economic cure-all. It isn’t that he (or we) believes that well-thought-out investment in roads and bridges is unimportant. Quite the contrary. The problem is that the way in which policymakers decide which project goes forward often leads to costly miscalculations that in the end simply do not deliver the promised improvements.

A couple myths about infrastructure that Glaeser dispels are:

  • Infrastructure spending stimulates economic growth. Japan, which spent over $6 trillion on “construction-related public investment” between 1991 and 2008, and has arguably one the world’s best train systems, has not experienced sustained economic growth in over two decades. Will building more highways in areas with little population improve economic conditions in U.S. States? It seems unlikely.
  • The public benefits, so funding should be done with general tax revenues. It is a near fact of life that funding a project from afar reduces the discipline needed to make sure it is done in a cost-efficient manner, and—perhaps more importantly—makes it less likely that the project will actually benefit the public (and not just those proposing it). Ill-advised, federally funded projects such as Detroit’s People Mover Monorail and Alaska’s Gravina Bridge (a.k.a. “the bridge to nowhere”) serve as cautionary tales. Spending federal funds on local projects like Kansas City’s trolley system is similarly likely to yield little or no economic benefit.

There is much more to Glaeser’s article, and I cannot do it justice in this space. I think you will agree, after reading his article, that maybe that new road or light rail extension being peddled by the local mayor or city council isn’t as critical to the region’s economic vitality as some might have you think.

About the Author

Rik Hafer
Research Fellow

Rik Hafer is a Show-Me Institute research fellow and a professor of economics and the Director of the Center for Economics and the Environment at Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri.