By: Kim DeCoste Issue: Rebuilding Our Infrastructure Section: Government
The Infrastructure Debate
Lately, conversation about debt ceilings and credit ratings in the United States have left politicians struggling to say anything good or positive about one another or about any real progress they are making on tough issues. There has been a fair amount of traditional media attention paid to large international public and mass transportation projects. Citizens are seeing renewed pressure for legislators and voters to consider such options in the United States. One might be surprised at the sharp divides that persist not only along obvious party lines, but there is also a fundamental difference of opinion about how Americans can orient ourselves on a path for success in this area and what the priorities should be.
In a large country where states must not only weigh in on infrastructure issues but also ultimately support them, objections are continually raised. There is one area where promising bipartisan conversation had been occurring and where, if politicians chose to so focus, we could see real progress to make people feel a bit better about U.S. political leaders and their ability to get things done. That centers on the idea of an infrastructure bank or guarantee fund that would help underwrite certain projects to expedite them, cut out the need for Washington involvement on the approval process, and arguably give the projects a more nimble orientation in general. More projects leads to improvement in local economies and jobs, proponents suggest. Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it appears to be.
High Speed Rail
Recent coverage on NBC Nightly News touted the launching of a new high speed train in China. The first report filed presented a “no-brainer” argument on why the U.S. should follow the Chinese model and push forward with a similar approach. They did note that challenges would face the U.S. that the Chinese do not have: 1) the need for bipartisan support; 2) full governmental transparency; 3) funding issues; 4) environmental regulations in the U.S. that would not be overlooked but which do not exist in China, among them.
The second report had a more U.S.-centric view of existing rail projects. There is the eastern corridor of the U.S. (Boston-New York-D.C.) line but it is a mixed model, relying in parts on regular rail tracks to convey the trains, thus slowing them. And there are the California and Nevada projects (Los Angeles-San Francisco-San Jose and Los Angeles-Las Vegas) in various stages of development. The report also showed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood extolling the economic development value of these and other prospective high speed rail projects that, like the U.S. Highway project of the 1950’s-60’s, would connect the whole country in a more efficient manner. La Hood and others argue this is something we cannot afford NOT to do and that the economic impact would jumpstart the economy. Meantime, governors from Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio have stood up in loud opposition. What is the underlying issue and what is the truth?
That’s hard to say. Somewhat surprisingly, this discussion is not a new one. There is good documentation on this issue going back more than a decade. In 1992, The Boston Globe’s Steve Morrison published a succinct article that stated the following, “First, we live in a country with a lot of land per person, putting us 148th out of 208 countries in population density. Our 69 people per square mile is one-fifth of Western Europe's 380 and one-12th of Japan's 850. Of course, there are regions in this country with high population densities. Nonetheless, the National Research Council could find only one route—San Francisco to Los Angeles—on which a high-speed rail system could cover its cost, and then only if all existing air passengers switched from air to rail!”
The specific numbers have most certainly changed, but the point is well taken. The U.S. doesn’t have the concentration of people in the concentration of geography that most other countries have. Americans are well-known for their love affair with their individual vehicle use. Should car drivers change their orientation? Likely yes. Will they? Not likely until it becomes prohibitive from a cost standpoint.
There are special interest groups who advocate for one position or another. On issues from bike use for regular transportation, to oil independence for national security, plenty of Americans would do something other than drive their own cars, but this is a big country and for many, even if they could get from Denver to D.C. on a high speed train or San Francisco to St. Louis, once they got to their destination, they’d probably have to rent a car to get around. For a family of travelers, a road trip still makes more sense for many destination vacations.
Pragmatically, critics argue that the government subsidies that would be required to make the construction of a cross-country high speed rail network real are so substantial that any benefit (environmental or otherwise) would be offset and minimalized by the investment in tax dollars.
There are powerful administration resources pushing hard for high speed rail, as it is seen as a key to future growth and development. An elaborate 20+ year plan and the expansion can be found on www.ushsr.com, the U.S. High Speed Rail site. The data supporting the idea of high speed rail lines are outlined clearly there.
For people interested in a multi-series point/counter-point approach that presents both sides of this issue, there is a recent series of articles on a blog called infrastructurist.com (www.infrastructurist.com). This series provides a complex look at this issue and presents data which U.S. voters should become informed. But it is a fundamental question about which U.S. voters really ought to inform themselves. All Americans deal with the challenges and setbacks associated with the relatively outdated infrastructure system. Whether it’s bottlenecks at overused regional airport hubs, traffic jams from coast-to-coast in the metropolitan areas Monday through Friday or tie-ups on recreational traffic corridors (such as I-70 in the Rockies during ski season), Americans must find a way to address the country’s need to move people and freight expediently and safely.
The Infrastructure Bank
Funding these national economic, multi-state initiatives often is at the center of the discussion. Local (state) legislators cannot be involved in the decision other than voicing the opinions of their constituents. Until recently, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Senator Kay Bailey-Hutchinson (R-TX) put forth a proposal in March of this year that has not gotten as much attention as it probably should. As suggested earlier in this article and after watching a recent episode of Meet the Press (8/7/11), several people, including Sen. Kerry himself, argued in favor of such a proposal which would establish a relatively small ($10 billion) fund to underwrite certain projects. The Obama administration has come out in favor of the idea and offered to augment the fund. Economic development and job creation concerns fuel the White House’s enthusiasm.
The idea is that the initial $10 billion dollar investment fund could swell, through private investment, to as much as $640 billion over a 10-year period. Hutchinson says such a “private public partnership would help us to address water, transportation and energy infrastructure needs.” This plan would allow the Federal Government to fund up to 50 percent of a project. This “out of the box” approach touted by Kerry and Hutchinson is garnering broad support from key stakeholders such as Thomas Donohue, President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
Trumka and Donohue also advocate for “an appropriate increase in fuel taxes.” Here is where some may balk at supporting the ideas. The current tax on gas is at 18.4 percent and has not been altered since 1993. But now does not seem to be a good time to increase taxes for many people. Further detractions come from many Republicans, going back to Bobby Jindal’s point in 2009. Jindal and others suggest the money is better spent on bringing our highways up to speed for safe and effective travel that would benefit more people (as opposed to just the train riders).
The dividing line is thus fairly clearly drawn for the Democrats and Republicans. There are major companies that would also like to see such development occur and some people advocating to let private industry come to the table with ideas, funding mechanisms and proposals to integrate their goods and services into the plan. In many cases, however, these are not U.S. companies, and the fear is that all the good economic development will flow out of domestic wallets into the hands of European Union or Asian manufacturers. There are provisions in place in several rail projects for high speed trains whereby only America goods can be used, including U.S. produced steel, before any foreign resources can be used.
Whatever the path looks like moving forward, it seems there is an opportunity on both issues, the high speed rail discussion and the infrastructure fund, for leaders to lead and for voters to press for decisive action. As a large industrialized nation, this country must face various challenges and make decisions, even if these decisions are incremental at this point. All options must be considered as citizens press for facts and voice opinions to state and federal officials. Much will be lost if this process is not done correctly, and infinitely more will be accomplished if clear measured steps are taken with an eye toward scalable and replicable decisions that reflect the best options. Americans must apply clarity in these plans in order to find successful solutions to these growing problems.