The $50 billion in federal money that President Obama announced on Labor Day he wants to spend on transportation-related infrastructure projects would be but a few small drops in a very big bucket. No matter. The chances of these drops getting past all the obstacles in Congress before election day hover at zero. Republican obstructionists and conservative Democrats stand against the proposal, of course. But even some members whose views fall more in the middle of the Democratic spectrum oppose it. Sen. Michael Bennett of Colorado rejected the idea before the warm applause greeting Obama in Milwaukee had worn off, and House Democratic leaders essentially said no way. So, at best, we're looking at 2011.
Like so much else that plagues the U.S. economy, decay of the U.S. infrastructure has been building for decades. That's in part because policymakers at the local, state and federal levels have been more interested in building new stuff than in keeping the old stuff in good repair. It's also a product of the magical thinking known as out-of-sight, out-of-mind, or in budget-writers' parlance, deferred maintenance.
Bridges don't fall down when the first rivet rusts through. Roads don't become unusable when the first pothole appears. A rotting rail bed merely slows trains down; it doesn't stop freight or passengers from moving altogether. But deterioration from deferred maintenance is cumulative. What starts out as an easily fixed, relatively cheap repair becomes a gigantic, hugely expensive rebuild, often sparked by a killer catastrophe that spurs a duh moment for the media and many citizens, who inquire: how could this have happened? There is, obviously, the short-sightedness of politicians and other civic leaders, but the anti-tax attitude that has permeated so much of the populace plays a large part. Examples of this myopia abound. Americans shudder at that poor education so many of our children receive, but the desire to get them out of schools that can only be described as ramshackle frequently collides with the attitude that no taxes should be raised to change the situation.
The United States seriously needs new infrastructure. For instance, we need a nationwide, clean-energy smart grid. The current dilapidated, obsolete grid, into which a few billions of federal stimulus money have been placed over the past 18 months, is not up to the tasks required of it in the 21st Century. For one thing, transmission lines don't exist where they will be needed if we are going to build green electricity-generating plants in remote regions. Even if we decentralize much of our energy production, which we ought to do, the grid will continue to play an important role in distributing electricity for many decades. Likewise, we need high-speed rail. And expanded urban mass transit.
But the old infrastructure requires attention, too. Repair and restoration of what already exists cannot continue to be delayed.
How bad is the situation? For 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's whole infrastructure a grade point average of D. Here are the individual grades:
Drinking Water D-
Hazardous Waste D
Inland Waterways D-
Public Parks and Recreation C-
Solid Waste C+
Europe, the ASCE says, puts 5 percent of its gross domestic product into infrastructure spending and China 9 percent. In the United States, it's only 2.4 percent. Nearly two years ago, the ASCE estimated the five-year investment needed for infrastructure at $2.2 trillion.
That's the proper way to think about the creation of a first-rate, modern infrastructure, as an investment. Not just in the future, but in the urgent now when we need to generate millions of jobs. Not make-work jobs, but real ones, with real results that provide benefits today, tomorrow and for generations.
Done right, one way to avoid some of the pork-barrel aspects that sets people against government-funded infrastructure projects has been lumbering around Congress for many years. It's the national infrastructure bank mentioned by the President in his Milwaukee speech. This would leverage private, local and state funds for performance-based projects that a non-partisan panel of experts would determine to be most valuable. Combine this with an elimination of congressional earmarks and a good deal of pork-barrel projects would be done away with. Of course, we'd be kidding ourselves to think that politics can be completely scrubbed out of which projects get chosen, but the bank offers the potential for at least a partial clean-up.
There are several state examples. The California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank, which is the country’s largest, has been in operation for a decade. Seeded with $181 million, it has financed $220 billion in projects so far.
But before we have a national bank, before we have more than a comparative trickle of dollars for infrastructure projects, attitudes will have to change. And in Washington that will require a change of personnel. We'll no doubt have some in less than two months. Unfortunately, most of it will be in the wrong direction.