What’s it worth?—Considering the value of our infrastructure

In the early 1990s, using unit-cost assumptions derived from major new-town and regional-development projects I had worked on, I estimated a value for the nation’s public infrastructure at greater than $1.4 trillion.  Economist Alicia Munell, then at the the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, published an article in the January/February New England Economic Review that cited unpublished Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data as a basis for estimating the 1987 value of non-military public capital stock at $1886.8 billion.  Munell’s number included public buildings such as hospitals and schools; mine did not.  Without the buildings, the BLS number was $1.35 trillion.  (The BLS estimates indicated that non-military public capital represented about 29% of the nation’s total capital stock, meaning all of our homes, factories, farms, and military bases, as well as what we usually mean by the term “infrastructure.”)

U. S. population in that period was estimated to be between approximately 243 and 257 million people. Our per capita investment in highways, transit, pipelines, sewers, and the like then works out to have been $5,500 to $5,600.  This would be a depreciated value, reflecting age and current condition of the facilities.  The cost of replacing the system entirely today would be much greater.

The nation’s population has grown to a bit more than 312 million people in 2011.  The consumer price index, one measure of how prices change over time, has grown in the past 2 decades to a level about 1.55 times what it was in 1990.  McGraw-Hill, publishers of Engineering News Record magazine, calculates several specialized indices that suggest construction and materials costs—that is, what it takes to build and repair infrastructure—have grown more rapidly than the consumer price index would suggest.  Any new infrastructure constructed to accommodate our increased population has almost certainly cost more, per capita, than the average investment value of 1990.  (For my “back of the envelop” calculation, I used a factor of 1.7, meaning approximately $9,400 per person at current prices. This value again reflects age and wear of facilities that have been in use for some years.)

Not only has our existing infrastructure aged and grown worn with use; according to such experts as the American Society of Civil Engineers—whose 2009 “report card” rated our systems as only a “D”—much of it has been seriously neglected.  In the same way that an old and poorly-maintained house may sell for less than its newer and better-kept neighbors, the value of our old capital stock may have depreciated substantially over the past 20 years.  (In my calculations I assumed that the average value of what was in place in 1990 is now worth only 90% of what it was then.)

I then figure that we have a net investment in our infrastructure that in 2011 is worth approximately $1.75 trillion, excluding school, city halls, hospitals, and other public buildings.  The per capita investment works out to be perhaps $5,700.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) estimates per capita U. S. gross domestic product (GDP) for 2010 was approximately $14,527. The economic activities of the utilities, transportation and warehousing, and waste management and remediation sectors of the economy accounted for 5% of that GDP.  Manufacturing and construction accounted for another 15.1%.  Whether they are absolutely dependent on modern infrastructure is arguable, but these economic activities clearly could not occur in their contemporary form or level of productivity without water supplies, transportation, electric power, and the other service infrastructure delivers.  In addition, GDP as a measure of national production neglects many of the environmental and quality-of-life benefits that infrastructure delivers.  If the nation’s economy were to be viewed as a large corporation, analysts could argue that our sales-to-fixed-assets ratio is substantially greater than the 2.6 calculated from per capita GDP and the estimated

How much of U. S. GDP is attributable to our infrastructure’s enhancement of productivity of our labor, land, and other capital investments has not yet been well researched.  A recent McKinsey & Co. analysis of India (by Gupta, Gupta, and Netzer) suggests that under-performing infrastructure could reduce that nation’s GDP growth by 4 to 8%.  Studies by the World Bank in the 1980s (by Alex Anas and Kyu Sik Lee) found that the costs of goods and services in some countries with newly industrializing economies cost were as much as 30 percent higher than would otherwise have been expected, because inadequate infrastructure forced firms to provide their own water and power supplies.  Endemic traffic congestion clearly adds to the costs of companies operating in such places today.

Because of such evidence, it seems to me likely that our infrastructure produces benefits significantly greater than the 2 to 4% return on invested capital that many economists have attributed to it.  If public agencies must pay rates in that range to borrow funds in the bond market, one certainly would anticipate that infrastructures built with these funds are more productive and the investment is a good one.  Anyone who has travelled to countries that lack adequate infrastructure cannot help but appreciate that this is the case.

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