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Surprisingly Small

This from the newly issued and celebrated report on America’s “shoddy” infrastructure:

In 2010, it was estimated that deficiencies in America’s surface transportation systems cost households and businesses nearly $130 billion. This included approximately $97 billion in vehicle operating costs, $32 billion in travel time delays, $1.2 billion in safety costs and $590 million in environmental costs.

In a report telling us how incredibly in need of money our infrastructure system is, I take dollar figures to be on the high side of reality. That said, is it really possible that accumulated infrastructure underinvestment in 2010 accounts for only $590 million in damage?

I’d expect environmentalists to be going nuts about this “low-ball” number. Maybe the fact that we now toss around numbers like trillions as if they were gumballs in a machine has deceived us from understanding the bigness or smallness of any number ending in “-llions” … but this $590 million represents less than $2 per American per year. And if this source is correct, Americans drive about 3 trillion miles per year, so this cost is (very roughly) two-hundreths of a penny per mile driven. If a typical car only gets 10 miles per gallon, then this amounts to less than two thousands of a penny per gallon of gas burned on the highway.

Of course, cars get better mileage, and more importantly, these figures are supposed to be the damage due to under-investment, not overall damages from driving. But they are small, almost to the point of being negligible. I doubt you’ll hear much about that.

And don’t forget something that I think I might have reminded you of this point just a few times before – the US government spends more money than the GDP of ANY other country in the world, yet our society of engineers tells us that our infrastructure is collapsing. Infrastructure is thought by many economists to be a public good, and that is one of the major roles of government. And they cannot get it done. Ponder that. $6 trillion per year and “infrastructure is crumbling” and the schools are failing. Nice. I wonder what they’d be able to do with a few more trillion? We’ll soon find out after we print those dollars.

, and less than 25 cents per passenger mile driven in the US. For a typical car that gets 20 miles per gallon,

One Response to “Surprisingly Small”

  1. Rod says:

    I was once a township supervisor, and after abolishing our police department, we were able to do away with our real estate tax, most of which had been spent on police. Indeed, our roads were crumbling, and potholes were everywhere. After the police department was abolished, we devoted the remaining tax revenues (mostly from a half percent earned income tax and our share of state liquid fuels taxes, which were based on the number of miles of township roads), and to this day it can be argued that we over-maintain our township roads: zero potholes and smooth road surfaces except where we share a road with police-laden Pennsburg, where we have the southbound side and Pennsburg has the northbound side.

    After we abolished our police department, there was no crime wave in Upper Hanover Township. Yes, the State Police did not perform some of the functions of a local police department, like checking on residents’ homes when they were away on vacation or like getting cats out of trees (this was never a real problem, but it was something that sold some people on the need for a police department).

    After the police department was abolished, we did have one incident that police department advocates always pointed to when arguing for the return of local police. The State Police were on a shift change when a ne’er do well named Indian Joe stabbed John Rozanski as he sat, under the influence, in his car outside the Palm Hotel. Ambulance personnel would not come to Rozanski’s aid until they deemed the scene of the crime “secure.” which occurred when an Upper Perk cop came to the Palm Hotel and put the cuffs on Indian Joe. Because the township did not have its own police force, it was Upper Perk Police policy not to be a “first responder” to violent crimes in the township. This policy reflected the political and economic views of the Fraternal Order of Police, which had its nose out of joint when Upper Hanover fired their police. At any rate, the officer responding to the scene did not follow union guidelines and did his best to let the ambulance corps treat John Rozanski for his wounds. Rozanski died.

    Now, there’s not been a similar incident since then, but the township nonetheless wanted to work out a deal to get the Upper Perk Police to respond in a true emergency without also arranging for the Upper Perk Police to be the first responders in the above mentioned cat in the tree emergency. For about $6,000 a year, the UPPD will help Upper Hanover out when the State Police are not available.

    There’s a lesson to be learned in all this. First, whole departments, like the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Education, could be abolished without major disruption of American life. Even things one might think they really need from a government department, like bringing cats down from trees, could be handled by some other level of government like the states, or could be handled privately, without the intervention of government.

    Then, after cutting spending meaningfully, there would be plenty of money for infrastructure, especially if our roads and bridges are not as hazardous as we might think. Let’s build the John Rozanski Memorial Bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul, but let’s defer maintenance on a lot of this stuff until we get out of this recession and can afford to make the repairs.

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