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Federalism: The Big Excuse

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Behn
March 16, 2018

If you live in Illinois or Connecticut, I feel sorry for you. That’s because the American Society of Civil Engineers determined that 73 percent of your roads are in “poor or mediocre condition.” Not that someone from Massachusetts can brag. Of our roads, 42 percent get the same censure.

The top state was Indiana with just 17 percent of its roads rated in this bottom category. That’s one in six roads. Not bad. But not great. In the United States, you would think (wouldn’t you?) that the best state would have only 5 percent (or less) of its roads in “poor or mediocre condition.”

If you are worrying about this infrastructure problem from a personal, pocketbook perspective, you might want to leave New Jersey. After all, that state’s poor roads are costing you $600 extra per year for your car’s operating costs and repairs. Indeed, if you moved just 500 miles south to Georgia, you could lop a zero off that number. There, for extra operating costs and repairs, the state’s roads would annually cost you “only” an addition $60. What a bargain!

For a family living in New Jersey, a bigger bargain, however, might be to fix the roads. How about that for a radical idea?

Actually, at the abstract, theoretical level, everyone is in favor of better roads. That’s not the problem. As we all know, the problem is: Who will pay? In Washington, everyone wants the states to pay. In state capitols, everyone wants Washington to pay.

In our city halls, however, most officials are agnostic. They don’t care whether the Feds pay, or the state pays. They just care that the city does not pay.

Isn’t federalism wonderful?

It is based on a well-known, constitutional principal succinctly articulated by the late Senator Russell B. Long of Louisiana: “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax the fellow behind that tree.”

Unfortunately, none of our elected representatives — whether in Washington, state capitols or city halls — has been able to locate the fellow behind Senator Long’s tree. We may want to tax him, but this fellow has been cleverly dodging taxes since before 1776.

Of course, there won’t be a United States if our ancestors had never constructed roads. Indeed, the Boston Post Road and similar “high ways” through the woods and over the rivers made it possible for the original thirteen colonies to communicate. To meet. To debate. To agree (sorta). To rebel. And eventually to defeat General Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Since then, the United States has constructed streets, roads and highways — totaling 8.66 million lane miles. That’s 140 feet of macadam for every man, women and child. I’m grateful that we don’t all try to use our own 140-foot allocation at the same time (although, during rush hour, we all certainly try).

When, however, you are creeping along in rush-hour traffic, the condition of the roads may not seem very important. At five miles an hour, a pothole won’t dent your wheel’s rim.

Yes, the pothole that was there yesterday is there again today. Actually, that pothole has been there for weeks. You and your fellow commuters know exactly where it is. And if you forget, you are reminded, just in time, by the driver in front of you who avoids it with a precise and practiced swerve.

Indeed, one of the nice things about potholes is that citizens notice. In November, they observe as the potholes begin to emerge from their summer hibernation. And, if the city fills one, they notice that too.

When Martin O’Malley was elected mayor of Baltimore, one of its first commitments was the “48-Hour Pot Hole Guarantee.” If a citizen called the city’s 311 (non-emergency) number and reported a pothole, O’Malley promised that his Department of Transportation would fill it in 48 hours.

Most of us would never call city hall to complain about a pothole (or anything else): “Why bother? Nothing ever happens.” Indeed, in Baltimore, few initially bothered. But those who did bother were surprised: The pothole was filled. Honest!

As a result, citizens began to learn. If they called 311 to request that the city fill a pothole, the city did. During the first six months of the 48-hour pothole guarantee, the city received 1,191 requests, and the average time to fill them, dropped from a little over seven days to less than 12 hours.

Four years later, during the same six-month period, citizen requests fill potholes exceeded six thousand. And over these six months—during their thirteen two-week reporting periods—the percent of reported potholes filled within 48 hours dropped below 96 percent only five times.

Unfortunately, our roads and highways aren’t in “poor and mediocre condition” solely because of potholes. Still, filling the potholes, would be a good place to start.

Who, however, wants the responsibility for this mundane, citizen-service responsibility? The municipalities? The states? Or the Feds?

Obviously, no one. Perhaps Senator Long should have articulated another well-observed Constitutional principle: Don’t blame you. Don’t blame me. Blame the legislator behind that tree.

Ain’t federalism wonderful?

Author: Robert D. Behn, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, chairs its executive-education program Driving Government Performance: Leadership Strategies that Produce Results. He also writes the on-line monthly Bob Behn’s Performance Leadership Report.

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