For at least the past three decades the media and others have been concerned about the "crumbling infrastructure" of the U.S. highways, including the roads and bridges. For example, as far back as April 1982, The Reader's Digest had an article entitled "Cures for America's Dying Highways". This concern led to a series of Federal acts over the subsequent 20 years that tried to help address safety and efficiency issues by providing additional funding for maintenance of roads and bridges through using revenues collected from the federal gasoline tax.
Given that total spending by state and federal governments amounts to over 1/3 of U.S. GDP, surely there are enough resources in government hands to provide excellent road infrastructure that produces efficient as well as safe travel. However, a problem in getting adequate resources to any important government activity is that they must compete with so many other demands on the very liberal overall budgets. In particular, spending on road safety has to compete against spending on medical care, retirement benefits, housing subsidies, public transportation, agricultural subsidies, and numerous other ways to spend government revenues. The most deserving forms of spending, such as highway safety, might get shortchanged as resources are spent on projects of questionable value, such as agricultural and housing subsidies, or social security benefits to well off individuals.
So is the present concern about safety of the infrastructure merited, or is it just a recurring reaction to the latest major accident, such as the bridge collapse in Minneapolis? As far as I can tell the evidence does not indicate a significant overall safety problem for American roads and bridges. For one thing, collapsing bridges and other defects in the infrastructure that cause serious accidents are very uncommon. The overwhelming fraction of all bridges in the country is in good or excellent shape. Of the huge number of bridges in this country-Illinois alone has over 30,000 bridges- only a little over 10 per cent are considered "structurally deficit" in the evaluations provided by the Federal National Bridge Inventory. Moreover, even this negative designation does not mean that these bridges are unsafe, but rather that they are in need of more frequent checkups to detect signs of any additional deterioration. Actually, few bridges are considered so unsafe that they have had weight limits imposed on the traffic using them.
Moreover, defects in infrastructure ranks far far behind driver and car defects as a cause of highway accidents. Even with the major advances in car quality during the past couple of decades, many cars on the road still have worn tires and mechanical defects that cause accidents. Clearly the most important cause of highway accidents are driver defects in the form of driving when under the influence of alcohol or drugs, bad eyesight, slow reactions, poor judgments, and limited driving skills. Drunk driving alone kills over 15,000 persons per year in the United States out of about 40,000 total annual deaths from automobile accidents. These data suggest that the bulk of any allocation of additional federal and state revenues to accident prevention devoted to highway safety should be spent on trying to reduce drunk driving, and discouraging driving by those who are prone to accidents.
Relative not only to poor countries like India with disastrous infrastructure, but also to rich countries like Great Britain and Italy, the American system of roads and highways is quite good, both in terms of accessibility and safety. That probably is an important reason why the U.S. has been slower than most other nations in privatizing more than a tiny part of its road system. Nevertheless, I agree with Posner that the U.S. should move aggressively toward privatizing many segments of that system (and other public activities as well).
An example of what can and should be done is given by the privatization of the Chicago Skyway, an 8-mile toll road that connects I-94 in Chicago to the Indiana Tollway. In 2005 the City of Chicago gave the Skyway Concession Company a 99-year lease to operate this skyway; the company paid almost $2 billion to the city for that lease. The privatization was actually motivated by the difficulties the city had in upgrading and repairing the skyway. The SCC collects and keeps all tolls and concession revenue, but it is responsible for all operating and maintenance expenditures.The agreement between the City of Chicago and this company is the first privatization of an existing toll road anywhere in the United States. So far it is working out extremely well, and might be the poster child for privatizations of other roads, although obviously more time is needed to see how the maintenance, efficiency, and tolls charged on the Skyway evolve in the future.