The Congressional Budget Office, cutting against the grain of conventional wisdom, argues in a recent study that the economic importance of increased federal spending on infrastructure has been exaggerated.
"Although further, carefully selected investments in public infrastructure may well be productive, there is little evidence to suggest that substantial, across-the-board increases in current programs would be more productive on average than private investment," the CBO notes in the study, tilted "How Federal Spending for Infrastructure and Other Public Investments Affects the Economy."
The CBO says there may be some merit in increasing selected spending on airports and highways, but it concludes that economic benefits could be gleaned simply by using existing assets more efficiently. For example, airports could charge flat landing fees -- encouraging airlines to use bigger planes -- or charge more for taking off and landing at peak times.
Most airports, the study says, currently charge landing fees based on the weight of the planes and cargo, a practice that discourages airlines from using larger planes. Consequently, airports are clogged with smaller craft.
Similarly, the CBO argues that current highway taxes are misguided because they "bear little relation to the damage to the pavement" given vehicles cause. The CBO says highway taxes should be replaced with fees based on vehicle weight per axle -- a suggestion likely to draw the ire of the nation's truckers.
The CBO says maintaining current highway conditions will provide a 30% to 40% return on investment, but fixing all deficiencies above minimum service and safety standards would produce negative returns on investment.