Somewhere, deep within the nooks and crevices of Washington, D.C., there are flickers of sanity. Or, at the very least, political moderation. At a time when ideology threatens to drown out rational discussion about government's role in funding critical infrastructure projects, a bipartisan group has put forth a plan to break the impasse that has kept Congress from enacting a new transportation bill.
Actually, there's nothing new in the proposal by the coalition known as Building America's Future Educational Fund. Consisting of elected officials at the state and local level, the group was founded in January 2008 by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their mission was to focus on all aspects of infrastructure, with a special emphasis on transportation policy.
The name of the BAF Educational Fund's report - "Falling Apart and Falling Behind" - states its view right up front. The authors argue that the nation's failure to adopt a coherent, long-term approach to transportation funding is placing it at a severe disadvantage to other countries. Ranked first in the World Economic Forum's 2005 report on global competitiveness, U.S. infrastructure is now in 15th place. None of the world's top ten ports are in the U.S. (China has six), our highways and bridges are in a shocking state of disrepair, the air-traffic system is plagued by congestion and high-speed rail is non-existent. All because we lack the political will to reauthorize a transportation funding program that expired two years ago, or engage in a meaningful discussion about the role of public and private entities in infrastructure development.
What the BAF Educational Fund really wants to see, says vice president and policy director Kerry O'Hare, is a national strategy that incorporates all elements of infrastructure - roads, bridges, aviation, maritime and public transit - and extends over at least the next 10 years. (SAFETEA-LU, the most recent funding program for surface transportation, covered only six years.) Beyond that, the group is trying to frame the infrastructure issue in terms of economic growth, rather than jobs. The distinction is important because the jobs argument tends to favor brand new projects in states represented by the most powerful legislators, rather than those that might yield the greatest benefit for the nation as a whole.
Here are the group's recommendations, all of which have been voiced in some form before:
- Develop a long-term, national infrastructure strategy, with choices based on economics instead of politics.
- Pass a "robust" transportation bill favoring projects that will ensure the best economic return while reducing congestion and pollution.
- Come up with both "innovative and realistic" plans for how to pay for transportation projects, including the formation of a National Infrastructure Bank.
- Set clear criteria for all funding efforts, utilizing competitive grants and carefully auditing projects to ensure that they are completed on time and on budget, and yield the promised results.
Unfortunately, the BAF Educational Fund has chosen not to wade into the issue of how exactly to fund repairs and new construction. "We're trying to focus on the bigger picture," says O'Hare. "We're just looking at transportation policy in general. One of the problems that we see has been a lack of vision about what we need going forward."
She has a point, but it's also true that any workable proposal will have to address the funding question head on - especially in light of the opposition by extremist Republicans to tax increases of any kind. The current federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, last raised in 1993, is sadly inadequate for the task. There's a broad consensus among transportation experts that it must be increased, but try telling that to legislators who are blinded by ideology, or trapped by reckless promises they made in order to get elected.
The other big hurdle to be overcome is the question of how transportation projects are prioritized. The BAF Educational Fund does address that issue, but it might be naive in thinking that veteran legislators will ever give up the power to deliver job-generating projects to their constituents. I seriously doubt that we've seen the last Bridge to Nowhere.
The fund's founders appear to have acknowledged the problem by restricting membership to state and local officials. "We feel that folks at the local level are much more accountable for what they're going to do," says O'Hare. "In so many cases, states and cities have been laboratories of innovation over the years."
Fair enough, but barring federal officials from the coalition is a good way to keep its mission on track. Still, the issue of "pork" or "earmarks" for the most powerful lawmakers will have to be addressed at some point. Never bet against Congress's ability to protect the tenure of its members.
President Obama unveiled his jobs bill last week. With regard to infrastructure, it incorporates many of the ideas previously put forth by the BAF Educational Fund, moderate legislators from both parties, legislative commissions and private think tanks. They include the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank and a new system for selecting projects with the greatest economic value. Still, the smart money says that little or no progress on the issue will be made between now and the presidential election. What happens after that, of course, depends on the ultimate victor and the makeup of Congress.
A larger question is whether rational minds will prevail in the long run. "I don't know if we're going to see it in the immediate short term," says O'Hare, "but over the next year I think we can make some headway into this. It's an educational process." For those who are willing to learn.
Next: The impact on infrastructure of the U.S. credit downgrade.
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