Infrastructure: Let's Spend Money on It!

Alan Caruba
January 20, 2009
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A sample imageDisclaimer by Mr. Stolyarov: In this article, Mr. Caruba eloquently outlines the positive aspects of Barack Obama’s proposal to spend federal money on infrastructure. Although this is an intelligent and well-argued position, it should not be taken as the opinion of The Rational Argumentator or of myself regarding the issue. I have long been an advocate of the privatization of roads and other currently “public” infrastructure. However, I do believe that if the government shall continue to arrogate to itself the task of building and maintaining roads and bridges, then it ought to do as good of a job at it as possible. Therefore, I remain open to the possibility that Obama’s infrastructure projects may be a step in the right direction, although far from my ideal of no government involvement in the road industry. 
There is one aspect of President Obama’s proposed agenda that I like very much, and it has to do with investing in the nation’s infrastructure of highways, bridges, ports, and airfields.
As a youth I can recall President Eisenhower and, from the vantage point of many decades later, I am amazed at how effective and foresighted he was. As President, perhaps his greatest legacy was the creation of a system of interstate highways. He funded it with a gas tax, and it literally transformed the nation economically and socially.
Today, those highways, begun in 1972 and not finished until 1993 at a total cost of $130 billion, are in need of some serious maintenance and upgrade, as are other elements of our infrastructure.
Attending to this vital national need will generate lots of jobs, well beyond construction. These are not the “green jobs” that Obama talks of, but real jobs that will produce real results in the form of an improved highway system, as well as the expansion of our ports and other transportation facilities.
Writing recently, Anthony Coscia, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, had this to say about the nation’s infrastructure:
“America is literally falling apart. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, one-third of the nation’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and 26 percent of its bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.”
Back in September, the Washington Post reported that the Highway Trust Fund was about to run out of money before the end of the year. Left unmentioned, however, was why. Billions of the Fund’s money have been diverted to boost the production of ethanol. When the ethanol lobby realized it was going to be rightly blamed for potholes and collapsing bridges, it got the Energy Policy Act of 2005 passed to facilitate direct financing from the U.S. Treasury. Who voted for this? Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Tom Harkin, and Sen. Richard Lugar, to name a few.
“The nation’s air traffic control system still relies on radar technology dating from the 1960s, leading to chronic flight delays and near-collisions on the runways. Traffic gridlock on the nation’s highways and airways costs the U.S. economy more than $100 billion annually.”
Part of the problem is that the States are responsible for some 75 percent of the cost of all infrastructure projects, with the federal government picking up the rest. Governors, being politicians, know that highway repair is not a big vote-getter, so they have tended to ignore it.
Coscia notes that “The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it will cost $1.6 trillion just to bring the nation’s infrastructure to a state of good repair.” This would be money well spent. Right now there are $79 billion in projects whose plans have been completed and could begin tomorrow if the money was available. The Obama administration and Congress need to make it available.
At issue, too, is where those projects are located. Bear in mind that 65 percent of America’s population lives in metropolitan areas and accounts for 75 percent of the economy. This is no time for more “bridges to nowhere.” The nation’s cities should be first in line to upgrade existing structures and add new ones.
Among those structures in desperate need of upgrade are the crumbling water mains in cities from Boston to Tampa to San Antonio and elsewhere, most of which were built generations ago. The estimated bill will be $277 billion according to the Environmental Protection Agency. What is more vital to life than water? Spend the money!
This is, ironically, a quintessential conservative cause, even if it will take a recession and a nation’s capitol filled with liberals to make it happen. Republicans in office should embrace infrastructure as a key issue now that Congress has returned.
As Emil W. Henry, Jr., a former assistant treasury secretary from 2005 to 2007, wrote recently, “Like the maintenance of a strong military—investment that protects prosperity—investment in key infrastructure is consistent with Reagan principles.” He, like so many others, says “Our infrastructure needs are at a critical juncture.”
There will be voices opposing this task, and they will all be from environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club that are already on record as being against building new highways, new coal-fired or nuclear generation plants, and just about anything else that will ensure that our complex society can function and our economy can keep pace with the rest of the world.

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