Academic Literature

US / For each dollar of federal highway grants received by a state, that state’s GSP rises by at least two dollars

Federal highway grants to states appear to boost economic activity in the short and medium term. The short-term effects appear to be due largely to increases in aggregate demand. Medium-term effects apparently reflect the increased productive capacity brought by improved roads. Overall, each dollar of federal highway grants received by a state raises that state’s annual economic output by at least two dollars, a relatively large multiplier.

Increasing government spending during periods of economic weakness to offset slower private-sector spending has long been an important policy tool. In particular, during the recent recession and slow recovery, federal officials put in place fiscal measures, including increased government spending, to boost economic growth and lower unemployment. One form of government spending that has received a lot of attention is public investment in infrastructure projects. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allocated $40 billion to the Department of Transportation for spending on the nation’s roads and other public infrastructure. Such public infrastructure investment harks back to the Great Depression, when programs such as the Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority were inaugurated.

One criticism of public infrastructure programs is that they take a long time to put in place and therefore are unlikely to be effective quickly enough to alleviate economic downturns. The fact is, though, that surprisingly little empirical information is available about the effect of public infrastructure investment on economic activity over the short and medium term.

This Economic Letter examines new research (Leduc and Wilson, forthcoming) on the dynamic effects of public investment in roads and highways on gross state product (GSP), the total economic output of a state. This research focuses on investment in roads and highways in part because it is the largest component of public infrastructure in the United States. Moreover, the procedures by which federal highway grants are distributed to states help us identify more precisely how transportation spending affects economic activity.

We find that unanticipated increases in highway spending have positive but temporary effects on GSP, both in the short and medium run. The short-run effect is consistent with a traditional Keynesian channel in which output increases because of a rise in aggregate demand, combined with slow-to-adjust prices. In contrast, the positive response of GSP over the medium run is in line with a supply-side effect due to an increase in the economy’s productive capacity.

We also assess how much bang each additional buck of highway spending creates by calculating the multiplier, that is, the magnitude of the effect of each dollar of infrastructure spending on economic activity. We find that the multiplier is at least two. In other words, for each dollar of federal highway grants received by a state, that state’s GSP rises by at least two dollars…

via FRBSF Economic Letter: Highway Grants: Roads to Prosperity? (2012-35, 11/26/2012).

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