The Case of the Missing Highways

In November 2021, Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed the trillion dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, often referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIF). The bill included funds for:

  • Highways and bridges
  • Buses, subways, and other mass transit systems
  • Amtrak, the federally sponsored corporation that provides most intercity railroad service in the United States, to modernize and expand its service
  • A network of charging stations for electric cars
  • Maintenance and modernization of ports and airports
  • Securing infrastructure against cyberattacks and climate change
  • Increasing access to clean drinking water
  • Expansion of broadband internet, particularly in rural areas
  • Treating soil and groundwater pollution

As with other infrastructure bills, although the federal government provides funding, much of the actual work—and some of the funding—is the responsibility of state and local governments. For instance, nearly all highway construction in the United States is carried out by state highway or transportation departments. These state government agencies design new highways and bridges and contract primarily with private construction firms to do the work.

Because state and local governments carry out most highway and bridge construction, Congress doesn’t always achieve the results they intended when providing the funding.  Bill Dupor, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, has discovered a striking example of this outcome. In 2009, in response to the Great Recession of 2007–2009, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). (We discuss the ARRA in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.5 and Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.5.) Included in the act was $27.5 billion in new spending on highways. This amount represented a 76 percent increase on previous levels of  federal spending on highways. As Dupor puts it, Congress and the president had “great hopes for the potential of these new grants to create and save construction jobs as well as improve highways.”

Surprisingly, though, Dupor’s analysis of data on the condition of bridges, on miles of highways constructed, and on the number of workers employed in highway construction shows that the billions of dollars Congress directed to infrastructure spending under ARRA had little effect on the nation’s highways and bridges and did not increase employment on highway construction.

What happened to the $27.5 billion Congress had appropriated? Dupor concludes that after receiving the federal funds most state governments:”cut their own contributions to highway capital spending which, in turn, … [freed] up those funds for other uses. Since states were facing budget stress from declining tax revenues resulting from the recession, it stands to reason that states had the incentive to do so.”

He finds that following passage of ARRA many states cut their spending on highway infrastructure while at the same time increasing their spending on other things. For instance, Maryland cut its spending on highways by $73 per person while increasing its spending on education by $129 per person. 

Can we conclude that that Congressional infrastructure spending under ARRA was a failure and the funds were wasted? To answer this question, first keep in mind that when it authorizes an increase in infrastructure spending, Congress often has two goals in mind:

  1. To maintain and expand the country’s infrastructure
  2. To engage in countercyclical fiscal policy

The first goal is obvious but the second can be important as well. Typically, Congress is most likely to authorize a large increase in infrastructure spending during a recession. When the ARRA was passed in the spring of 2009, Congress and President Obama were clear that they hoped that the increased spending authorized in the bill would reduce unemployment from the very high levels at that time.  (Economists and policymakers debated whether additional countercyclical fiscal policy was needed at the time Congress passed the BIF in late 2021. Although the Biden administration argued that the spending was needed to increase employment, some economists argued that the BIF did little to deal with the supply problems then plaguing the economy.)

We discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.2 (Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.2), how expansionary fiscal policy can increase real GDP and employment during a recession. If Dupor’s analysis is correct, Congress failed to achieve its first goal of improving the country’s infrastructure. But Dupor’s findings that states, in effect, used the federal infrastructure funds for other types of spending, such as on education, means that Congress did meet its second goal. That conclusion holds if in the absence of receiving the $27.5 billion in funds from ARRA, state governments would have had to cut their spending elsewhere, which would have reduced overall government expenditures and reduced aggregate demand. 

As this discussion indicates, the details of how fiscal policy affects the economy can be complex. 

Sources: Gabriel T. Rubin and Eliza Collins, “What’s in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill? From Amtrak to Roads to Water Systems,” wsj.com, November 6, 2021; Bill Dupor, “So Why Didn’t the 2009 Recovery Act Improve the Nation’s Highways and Bridges?” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, Vol. 99, No. 2, Second Quarter 2017, pp. 169-182; Greg Ip, “President Biden’s Economic Agenda Wasn’t Designed for Shortages and Inflation,” wsj.com, November 10, 2021; and Executive Office of the President, “Updated Fact Sheet: Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” whitehouse.gov, August 2, 2021. 

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