What Engineers Mean When They Talk About Infrastructure Spending

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Slate has a commentary from the American Society of Civil Engineers on the sorry state of U.S. infrastructure. The ASCE is one of my favorite things as a policy journalist, because I love infrastructure -- my father was, after all, the head of a trade association for the heavy construction industry. Nothing fills my heart with quite the same joy as huge pieces of heavy equipment digging their sharp teeth into the earth.

On the other hand, a bit of caution is warranted when reading these reports. The first thing to remember is that as much as we all love engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers is not a disinterested party when it comes to analyzing how much infrastructure spending the U.S. needs. If the U.S. undertakes a large number of new civil engineering projects, the first people to benefit will be ... yes, that's right, the civil engineers who design them and oversee their construction. To be sure, they will not be the only people who benefit, but few other groups can be as reliably assured of a paycheck boost from the soaring U.S. need for people who can make a bridge that won't fall down.

The second thing to remember is that you should avoid the temptation to read "infrastructure" and start imagining whatever sort of infrastructure you think would be swell -- nicer airports, a high-speed rail line between the Hamptons and the Outer Banks, solar panels on every federal building. The ASCE is actually a bit cagey in its main report about where it proposes to spend the money, but if you dig around a bit, you see that it wants the bulk of the money to go to "surface transportation."

Source: American Society of Civil Engineers

And if you look at the section on surface transportation, you'll find that ASCE wants to spend the bulk of that money on ... highways.

Source: American Society of Civil Engineers

I have seen this report posted by a number of people whom I know to be card-carrying, sprawl-hating liberals. My guess is that they did not realize they were actually supporting a plan to spend three-quarters of a trillion dollars on highway construction over the next seven years.

This does not, of course, mean that the ACSE is wrong. Upgrades could certainly be usefully made to America's road, rail and water infrastructure -- and indeed, as a resident of Washington, I seem to be living through all of them right now, as a newly flush District government attempts to make up for a half-century of neglect. But just make sure you know what you're supporting, and why, and don't treat its suggestions as if they'd been prepared by a disinterested third party.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net