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Transportation spending is spread around the United States like peanut butter, and while it’s spread pretty thick—nearly $50 billion last year in federal dollars for surface transportation alone—the places that are most critical to the country’s economic competitiveness don’t get what they need. The nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions generate 75 percent of its economic output. They also handle 75 percent of its foreign sea cargo, 79 percent of its air cargo, and 92 percent of its air-passenger traffic. Yet of the 6,373 earmarked projects that dominate the current federal transportation law, only half are targeted at these metro areas.
In the past, strategic investments in the nation’s connective tissue—to develop railroads in the 19th century and the highway system in the 20th—turbocharged growth and transformed the country. But more recently, America’s transportation infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth and evolution of the economy. As earmarks have proliferated, the government’s infrastructure investment has lost focus. A recent academic study shows that public investment in transportation in the 1970s generated a return approaching 20 percent, mostly in the form of higher productivity. Investments in the 1980s generated only a 5 percent return; in the 1990s, the return was just 1 percent.