Who should build and fix the nation’s roads? The Democrats clearly believe road building and repair is best done by the federal government. President Obama, in fact, made infrastructure improvements a major part of his $787 billion stimulus package. And in the New Hampshire debate on Saturday night, the Republicans sadly seemed to look to Washington as well.
When asked during the debate about the federal government’s role in improving the nation’s roads, Newt Gingrich seemed resigned to a strong federal role. So did Mitt Romney, although he also seemed open to state efforts. According to Romney, “There are certain things government can do to grow the economy. Rebuilding infrastructure that is aging is one of them.” He went on to describe bridges and highways that needed repair.
These Republicans are right in pointing to a strong infrastructure as being essential to economic growth. But “Let Washington do it” should not be our battle cry. If we look first to the Constitution, and second to competency, we will discover that we should ask Washington to hit the road, not build it.
First, the Constitution leaves road building as a state and local function. In 1817, when Congress passed a bill allowing the federal government to build roads and canals in various states, President James Madison vetoed it. “I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling the bill with the Constitution,” Madison said. As a result of that veto, the state of New York built the very successful Erie Canal, and other states (and various entrepreneurs) built most of the rest of the nation’s roads very capably in the 1800s.
When the nation veered from this course of state and private building, problems resulted. The feds were incompetent. For example, after the Civil War the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads went from Omaha to Sacramento, and were heavily subsidized by Washington. Both went bankrupt (the Union Pacific several times). So did the Northern Pacific Railroad, which also had federal help. But the Great Northern Railroad, built by James J. Hill from St. Paul to Seattle, took no federal aid and never went bankrupt. In fact, it was the best built transcontinental and had the best rails and most even grade all across the country. Thus, federal aid to roads was not a stimulus to railroad growth, but an impediment instead.
Even in the 20th century, federal aid to infrastructure created huge problems. FDR used his WPA program under the New Deal to build roads primarily in states he needed to carry at election time. Later, President Eisenhower started the interstate highway system, and much of that was well done, but instead of cutting unemployment, the U.S. went into debt and recession in 1958. The states might have done the job much better, and in a more constitutional way.
If states today (or maybe even private companies) built the highways, the politicians would have strong incentives to build carefully and cheaply. Senators, like the late Robert Byrd, would no longer be able to seize extra federal cash for their states. Thus, the states, instead of looking to Washington, could work together to build interstate highways and major bridges. Finally, with less power in Washington, we would have a smaller Department of Transportation at the capital, and less federal debt to lay on our children and grandchildren.
Those are the arguments Republicans need to make. The Democrats would have no response — President Obama last year defended federal projects by citing the “intercontinental railroad,” apparently confusing it with the Union Pacific transcontinental railroad — which, as we mentioned, took federal aid and went bankrupt.
Just because something needs to be done, doesn’t mean the federal government ought to do it and can do it best.