InfrastructureUSA recently spoke with Governor Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania, about the urgent need for civic engagement on infrastructure. Governor Rendell, along with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, founded Building America’s Future, “a bipartisan coalition of elected officials dedicated to bringing about a new era of U.S. investment in infrastructure.”
Excerpts from that conversation:
The infrastructure challenge comes at a very difficult time in our nation’s history, because the economy is flattened, because there’s been so much federal investment in the bailout of the financial institutions, the bailout of the mortgage institutions, because we built up significant debt, I think all necessary to turn the economy around. For infrastructure to come knocking on the door, saying we need to invest and the only way to do it is to build up significant debt and invest it in something valuable that has long — those long term assets — that’s a hard sell. It’s a hard sell in the Congress and it’s a hard sell with the President who’s taken on a number of enormously broad and ambitious challenges. And the only way I think we have a chance to make that sell successful is not to convince Washington first, but we have to convince hometown America first. We have to get the people involved in the dialogue, get them to understand and to buy into the need for infrastructure revitalization in this country, and let their representatives know that we’re with you on this one.
The Frank Luntz poll made it absolutely crystal clear that the American people, even before we begin to try to sell them on the idea, are inclined to accept it. The Luntz poll showed that well over 70 percent of Americans said that they would be willing to pay more than 1 percent additional on their federal taxes if it could guarantee them infrastructure revitalization in a nonpolitical way. And that was Obama voters, 91 percent, McCain voters, 70+ percent; so rural voters, urban voters, metropolitan voters, suburban voters, it was across the board among all Americans. But Americans have to know what the plan is. They don’t want business as usual.
I was on the Morning Joe show and Mika Brzezinski said that the word “infrastructure” is the least sexiest word in the English language. And there’s something to that. Although infrastructure is vitally important, and it’s something that you can see and you can touch and feel — there’s no immediacy to it. Every once in a while a bridge collapses or a levee collapses and the American people get stirred, but on a day-to-day basis there’s no immediacy to it. There’s immediacy to fixing the economy. There’s immediacy to fixing healthcare. There’s no immediacy — I would suggest there is. If you look at the American Society of Civil Engineers study, it went in five years from 1.6 trillion dollar gap to 2.2 trillion dollar gap. Why? Because costs have gone up so dramatically. And the sooner we get about fixing the American infrastructure, the less it’s going to cost us. You know it’s like the old Fram Oil filter commercial where the guy holds up the can of Fram Oil filter and he says “you can pay me now,” the screen flashes 17 dollars, “or you can pay me later” and you see a dilapidated car and it flashes 3,872 dollars. And that’s what it’s like. If you fix it now, we’re going to keep costs to a minimum. They’ve already risen — almost out of control. But we’ve got to fix it now for cost factors, for the public safety, for quality of life, and for economic competitiveness. China, India, the emerging powers, are investing in their infrastructure, you know, to beat the band, and we’ve got to get on the stick.
Well I think citizen dialogue, civic dialogue, whatever you want to call it, is essential to allowing the public to understand what the stakes are here. And to allow the public to understand the dimension of our problem. Only if they reach that point will they be strong in their support. Look, we all have busy lives. In our own lives we prioritize all the time. You know, I’d like a new car, but you know, my car gets me where I need to go, so I’m going to put that on the back burner because right now I’m having trouble paying my mortgage. You make choices, you prioritize in your own life, and citizens tend to prioritize in terms of what they want the government to do. And by engaging in civic dialogue, I believe we can raise public consciousness of where infrastructure needs to be, in terms of the public agenda, public priorities. We’ve got to do that.
Even with President Obama understanding this issue and showing leadership, he has just so many irons that he can put in the fire, so it’s got to come, in my judgment, from the Congress and the President working together. They have to hear from us, and unless we get this civic dialogue going, they’re not going to hear from us in sufficient numbers and in sufficient level of enthusiasm to make this a priority issue. And we’re going to miss another opportunity.