Infrastructure: Nation's physical plant another crisis for next president

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 15, 2008 

WASHINGTON — As if the next president won't have enough on his plate — with the collapse of the financial markets, two foreign wars, persistent security threats and a host of other concerns — America's infrastructure is collapsing.

Whether major highways or inland waterways or the electrical grid or a quarter of all bridges, the nation's physical plant needs billions of dollars in repairs.

"We've been relying on a patch-and-pray approach, not a strategic, more thoughtful approach," said Casey Dinges, senior managing director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

John McCain and Barack Obama occasionally talk about infrastructure. But whatever the next president does on a range of issues, such as the economy, the environment or homeland security, he'll have to take it into account.

"There are new realities," said Robert Puentes, a fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. "Energy realities. Climate realities. We need an updated infrastructure plan for this nation that meets the realities of today. We simply don't have one."

Other nations, meanwhile, are aggressively pushing new projects, mindful of the economic benefits of improved transit and green energy.

"They target their investments to meet those goals," said Polly Trottenberg, the executive director of Building America's Future, a bipartisan coalition of elected officials concerned about infrastructure. "We don't. We divvy up the pot."

Public officials, engineers and policy experts have been warning for years that crumbling infrastructure is a ticking time bomb.

Their fears came true when New Orleans' levees failed in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,000, and again last year when the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour, killing 13.

The neglect, usually because of deferred maintenance, has been widespread.

A third of the nation's major highways are in poor shape, according to the Department of Transportation. The list of unsafe dams is growing. Mass-transit systems, water-treatment plants, hazardous-waste sites and more are falling apart.

The civil engineers association gave the country a "D" on its 2005 infrastructure Report Card. It called for a $1.6 trillion five-year improvement program.

McCain and Obama haven't embraced anything as dramatic as that.

McCain returns to his signature issue — cutting earmarks, those projects that get funded without having to go through the normal oversight process.

It's a swing at a fat pitch. The transportation budget is traditionally larded with pork-barrel projects for lawmakers' home districts. Every other lawmaker, it seems, has a road or bridge tucked away in all those pages.

The Republican presidential candidate recently told AAA that "disgraceful amounts of pork-barrel spending ... have saturated our highway authorization bills."

Exhibit A, he often says, is Alaska's notorious "bridge to nowhere," a $223 million project that was to connect an island of 50 people to the mainland.

"There's no doubt we need to get a handle on wasteful spending," Puentes said. But earmarks are sometimes the only way needed infrastructure repairs get funded, he added.

Democrat Obama talks about infrastructure in his trademark lofty style.

"Now is not the time for small plans," he told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in June. "Now is the time for bold action to rebuild and renew America."

He wants to set up a national infrastructure investment bank to invest $60 billion over 10 years in projects to improve roads, ports and mass transit. Nearly 2 million new jobs would result, he predicts.

"I don't want to see the fastest train in the world built halfway around the world in Shanghai," Obama told the mayors. "I want to see it built right here in the United States of America."

China has developed high-speed trains that can travel more than 200 mph to handle passenger demand and boost the economy. The Beijing Olympics provided a showcase for the new trains.

John Horsley, the executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said that the U.S. is lagging behind, investing less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product into infrastructure. In China it's 9 percent.

"What they're doing is using infrastructure investment to position themselves to be the world leader in finance and commerce," Horsley said. "That's their ambition. Every one of our international competitors is making substantial investments in its infrastructure — airports, highways, transit, rails — for the next century. We're not."

McCain has said he wants to modernize transportation, but he hasn't offered a detailed plan. He also talks about infrastructure improvements in the context of responding to global warming.

"Each one of these consequences of climate change ... will require new precautions in the repair and construction of our roads, bridges, railways, seawalls and other infrastructure," he said in a speech last spring at an Oregon wind technology facility.

McCain does, however, want more decision-making on projects left to state and local officials.

In the spring he called for a gasoline-tax holiday when pump prices topped $4 a gallon. But economists and highway experts rejected the idea because such revenues pay for transportation projects. The tax has remained at 18.4 percent since 1993, and both McCain and Obama oppose raising it.

They also agree on the need to upgrade the national power grid to make it adaptable to plug-in electric cars. McCain wants to build 100 new nuclear power plants. Obama pushes the development of renewable fuels, such as solar, wind and other green sources.

Experts said that both candidates deal with some of the demands created by aging infrastructure, but neither has put together a comprehensive plan.

They said Obama has spelled out some ideas to get money "out the door right away" to improve conditions and create jobs, while McCain wants to safeguard what's spent.

"Those are both important pieces of the puzzle," Trottenberg said. "We are going to have to make some tough choices in terms of our long-term economic competitiveness. Infrastructure is a top, top, top issue."

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