National Data | Infrastructure to the Rescue? Not Without Immigration Reform
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Government groups are pressuring Congress to include public infrastructure in any future bailout bill. They want $250 billion to $300 billion earmarked for roads, bridges, airport and other public works projects. [Including Infrastructure in Economic Bailout, Georgia Municipal Association, October 31, 2008]

Politically, infrastructure is a winner. Unlike the Wall Street bailout, with its Eastern, elitist tinge, a public works spending program would create blue-collar jobs in communities throughout the country. There is also an economic case: Collapsing bridges, nightmarish airports, and chronic traffic congestion costs us plenty—in dollars, time, and lives.

But if money was the problem, there would be no problem. Since 1987 capital spending on transportation and water infrastructure has increased by 2.1 percent per year above inflation. At $233 billion (2004 dollars), infrastructure is already one of the largest categories of government spending. [CBO, Issues and Options in Infrastructure Investment, May 2008. (PDF) ]

Our infrastructure is "crumbling" because population growth has overwhelmed the ability of even these vast sums to expand capacity.

Take the highway system. America has about 70 million more people today than a quarter century ago, yet highway miles have increased by a mere 5 percent over that period. DOT estimates that the demand for ground transportation—either by road or rail—will be 2 ½ times as great by 2050, while highway capacity will expand by only 10% during that time. [Road Warriors, By Will Sullivan, US News and World Report, March 29, 2007]

Implication: unless population growth is reduced, highway congestion will increase……no matter how much we spend on highways. 

Immigrants and their U.S.-born children have generated more than half of U.S. population growth in recent decades.

Less widely appreciated is the impact they've had on urban sprawl. Cities with large immigrant populations experience larger increases in suburb-to-core commuter traffic—with many of the new suburban commuters having lived in urban cores until displaced by immigrants.

We drive more– and require more highway infrastructure—mainly because the area in which we live, work and shop is larger and more spread out. Sprawl occurs when rural land which had been undeveloped or used for agriculture is developed for residential or commercial use.

There can be only three reasons for such sprawl:

  • a rise in per capita land consumption;

  • a rise in population;

  • both.

The relative importance of these factors was quantified in a 2003 study by Roy Beck, Leon Kolankiewicz, and Steven Camarota. [Outsmarting Smart Growth Population Growth, Immigration, and the Problem of Sprawl]

This is what they found: 

  • Nationally, population growth accounted for 52 percent of urban sprawl between 1982 and 1997, while increases in per-capita land consumption accounted for 48 percent.

  • The more rapid a state's population growth, the more a state sprawled. For example, states that grew in population by more than 30 percent between 1982 and 1997 experienced a 46 percent rise in urban sprawl. In contrast, states that grew in population by less than 10 percent sprawled only 26 percent on average.

  • On average, each 10,000-person increase in state population resulted in 1,600 acres of undeveloped rural land being developed, even controlling for other factors such as changes in population density.

More sprawl equals longer commutes equals more time spent getting to work. When the suburbanite finally exits the interstate he often enters a dense urban space where transportation infrastructure is increasingly scarce. Immigrants play a role in this crunch also:

"…For economic reasons, immigrants often live with more people per dwelling unit than do native-born residents; when Fulton et al. (2001) conducted a study on sprawl for the Brookings Institution, they found that the single most important variable in explaining changes of density between 1982 and 1997 was the share of 1990 residents who were foreign born. Los Angeles, as a major immigrant port of entry, ranks near the top of their list of the United States' densest urban areas, and the top 20 are dominated by western urban areas like Phoenix, Modesto, Calif., and Fresno, Calif. …." [Parking, People, and Cities By Michael Manville and Donald Soup, Journal of Urban Planning and Development, December 2005.PDF]  

As density increases so too does congestion, in part because it is hard to add more street space in areas that are already heavily developed. Most new lane mileage is built on the urban fringe. Finding a parking space is also more time consuming—not to mention expensive—in dense urban cores.

There are mitigating factors. Recent immigrants are less likely to own automobiles, and more likely to take mass transit and to carpool. Over time, however, the travel patterns of immigrants resemble those of the U.S.-born. For those here over twenty-years there is practically no difference. [ Commuting Patterns of Immigrants, Federal Highway Administration Census Transportation Planning Package]

Bottom line: an infrastructure bailout without immigration reform is throwing good money after bad.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.

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