It’s been a busy couple of weeks in the realm of infrastructure. Or, at least insofar as talking about infrastructure.
It began with outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the former Republican congressman from Illinois serving in the Obama administration since 2009. In a February 6 interview with Diane Rehm, the syndicated National Public Radio host (based out of WAMU radio in Washington, DC), LaHood spoke about his concerns regarding infrastructure funding by the Congress – or to be more accurate, the lack thereof.
“America is one big pothole right now,” said LaHood. He cited the two-year, $105 billion surface transportation bill passed by Congress in 2012, which he believes should have been larger and sufficient to fund projects over the next five years. “It was only a two-year bill because they couldn’t find enough money to fund a five-year bill.” Congress historically has funded transportation and infrastructure every half decade.
“At one time…we were the leader in infrastructure,” LaHood said. “We built the interstate system. It’s the best road system in the world, and we’re proud of it. But we’re falling way behind other countries because we have not made the investments.”
On February 12, in his annual State of the Union address, President Obama also spoke of the need to shore up crumbling infrastructure as an economic stimulus. He cited in the annual joint session of Congress that CEOs of most companies typically prefer to locate their companies where the roads and Internet connections are working smoothly and at high speed. To that point, he proposed a “Fix-It-First” program, which would put people to work on such things as the nation’s 70,000 bridges found to be deficient, in addition to port, pipeline and school refurbishments.
While the president proposed a mix of public and private investments to fund such repairs, at least one transportation advocate puts the onus on politicians. “Every day millions of frustrated Americans lose valuable time and money waiting in traffic,” said Robert Darbelnet, president of the AAA Auto Club. “They are relying on their elected officials to provide relief.”
The day following the President’s speech, February 13, the new House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), indicated he may be prioritizing this and is searching for bipartisan solutions. In addition to hearing from former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, testimony was provided by both a business and a union leader. They laid forth several key observations on infrastructure, which were published in the Washington Post:
- Infrastructure fixes will be expensive.
- The federal gas tax needs to be raised, but even if it is, other funding sources will be necessary (read more here and here about how the gas tax system works – and why newer vehicles’ improved gas efficiency is adversely affecting this revenue source).
- States should be allowed to collect tolls on federal interstate highways.
- Eventually, a per-miles-driven tax will be necessary to match road usage to road repairs.
The president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is on board with this. “The one thing we can’t do is neglect the problem,” said Thomas J. Donohue to the Post. “”It will not get any better if we just sit here and look at it. We’ve got to raise more money.” That cost might be as high as $2.7 trillion, according to studies on transportation and infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Donohue believes that the focus should be less on costs and more on benefits if they want voters to support various funding measures. Rendell concurs, arguing that when motorists understand their fuel costs (from idling in traffic) are greater than user fees that can fix it, allocating appropriate funds will be more likely.
“We have to figure out how to legislate common sense,” says Shuster. “I don’t know how to do that.”
If common sense doesn’t work, perhaps humor might. Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show, used his characteristic tongue-in-cheek apoplexy to criticize Obama’s speech, suggesting that infrastructure funding should have been the headline of the night. “70,000 [bridges] structurally deficient!,” he said. “I mean, come on! Shouldn’t you have opened with that?!”
It may all be talk – and jokes – at this point. But with bipartisan support and a strong business impetus to improve roads and bridges, maybe now things can move to the action stage.