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Guest on The Infra Blog: Kathy Hughes, Executive Producer of PBS’s Blueprint America

Posted by Steve Anderson on Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Kathy Hughes, Executive Producer, Blueprint America, PBS reports on infrastructure.

I think if you just use the word “infrastructure” people tend to think it’s going to be boring, but, for instance, the moment you start to think about how long it takes to get to work every day, getting stuck in traffic, or having the train run on time, people really care about these things.  All of us don’t realize how much we care until we start talking about it, or we start talking about what other people do or until we start imagining either changing our systems to make them better or worse.  So it’s very interesting. Transportation infrastructure, which is what we’ve been really focusing on in recent months, is something that is really a lifeline for all of us.  So it’s funny how quickly we can all get engaged and involved with the conversation.

From our reporting, what we are learning is that people tend to think of it as something that’s just there. I think that’s part of the disconnect. In some ways roads, bridges—even trains, tunnels—they’re just there, people look to them in the way they do the air they breathe. For the most part it’s just always been there, and for the most part the way we pay for these services is often through a regressive tax.  More and more whenever somebody wants to raise a toll suddenly people get upset: “What do you mean you’re going to charge me for this?” But the fact is, because we don’t necessarily day in and day out think about how it’s paid for and how it’s built, it’s just something that happens.  I think people take it for granted.

I think that, to some extent, when you bundle it all together and you talk about energy and communications and education and roads and bridges and tunnels, it’s slightly overwhelming.  And I think people maybe do not know—they bulk it all together as sort of “government doing well” or “government not doing well.” I think when you break it down a little bit you, in fact, have citizenry in different areas that are  more engaged than you realize.   We did some reporting in Denver, and in the Denver Metro area local people voted to tax themselves to put in, essentially, a better commuter rail from downtown out to the suburbs. And you don’t really think of Americans voting to raise their taxes for things, but people are aware, and I don’t know that  we’re going to have a civil rights era like people marching in the streets for this, but perhaps they will. I think maybe there’s more awareness than we give people credit for, to some extent.  I think that when I speak to people, people are well aware of the fact that our energy system needs to be updated.  The fact that they’re aware of it is maybe step one.  And as a journalist what I feel like I do, and can do, is to keep reporting on not only the problems but potential solutions, and all this variety of point of view as to what the solutions might be.

We started this project last summer and at that time we liked Governor Rendell for saying “Oh my gosh, how are we going to get people to care about the word ‘infrastructure,’” and it wasn’t too long after that that Barack Obama was elected and the economy was tanking and suddenly we had a stimulus package that was going to create jobs by investing in what? In infrastructure.  And the word started rolling off of people’s tongues much more frequently than it has probably at any other time in our history.  So if there was ever a time when the infrastructure in some ways was in the public dialogue, it’s right now.

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