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Living in Denial

Posted by Ken Orski on Monday, October 18th, 2010
Innovation NewsBriefs Vol. 21, No. 24 Commentary The reaction of various advocacy groups to President Obama’s recent call for a $50 billion stimulus spending plan for transportation infrastructure was predictable. They applauded the President’s initiative and thought that Congress should promptly approve the spending request. The benefits of investing in infrastructure are undisputable and the need for funds is urgent and compelling, they (or their press releases) proclaimed. But convincing the next Congress of the need to act, whether to fund the infrastructure “down payment” of $50 billion or to authorize a proposed $500 billion multi-year surface transportation program, will not be easy. Most congressional lawmakers do not perceive infrastructure as an urgent priority. They see no signs of a popular outcry about the stalled transportation reauthorization, nor do they perceive a groundswell of grassroots support for massive transportation investments. Indeed, what the lawmakers see is just the opposite. They witness New Jersey voters strongly approving Governor Chris Christie’s decision to cancel work on the long-planned rail tunnel under the Hudson River because, says the Governor, “the state simply doesn’t have the money” to pay for overruns in the potential $9-14 billion project. Mr. Cristie, no doubt, has in mind the experience of Boston’s Big Dig which was projected in 1982 to cost $2.8 billion and ended up costing $15 billion. The lawmakers also see Republican candidates for governor in California (Meg Whitman), Florida (Rick Scott), Ohio (John Kasich) and Wisconsin (Scott Walker) pledging to cancel high-speed rail projects in their states if elected — and running ahead of their Democratic opponents who unanimously support President Obama’s $8 billion high-speed rail initiative. They see the public greeting with a yawn a bold and visionary Amtrak proposal to link Boston and Washington with a dedicated high-speed rail line. They read in a much noticed Sunday Times Magazine article “Education of a President,” (October 12) that the President himself thinks “there’s no such thing as ‘shovel-ready projects’ when it comes to public works.” And they hear an Administration unable to explain how the $50 billion infrastructure initiative will be paid for. When asked, a top administration official could only lamely reply “Stay tuned, we’ll let you know.” More evidence of public reluctance to spend on infrastructure comes from the findings of a new October 2010 survey by the Pew Center on the States and the Public Institute of California titled “Facing the Facts: Public Attitudes and Fiscal Realities in Five Stressed States.” By a large margin, respondents in five states (California, Arizona, Florida, Illinois and New York) showed a strong unwillingness to support additional transportation funding and offered to put transportation on the chopping block when asked which of their state’s biggest expenses they would least protect from budget cuts. It may be impolitic to suggest it, but dire warnings about the sorry state of the nation’s infrastructure seem to come largely from organized interests — stakeholders and advocacy groups. That is not to say that the nation’s transportation infrastructure has not been neglected or that America does not need better roads and transit systems. But rightly or wrongly, congressional lawmakers often discount cries about “crumbling infrastructure” as self-serving demands for more government money, often for projects that yield small economic return. Moreover, many lawmakers come from rural districts that experience little traffic congestion, whose roads are well maintained and which never hope to benefit from high-speed rail service. Their reluctance to spend more money on public works also has been fueled by what they see as disappointing results from the stimulus initiative. As Rep. John Mica (R-FL), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and potential future T&I Committee chairman in the 112th Congress likes to point out, more than 60 percent of the stimulus infrastructure dollars still remain unspent, while unemployment in the construction industries remains high. All this adds weight to the legislative reluctance to tackle an ambitious infrastructure spending bill any time soon. As one of our colleagues, a sincere and lifelong transportation advocate, put it, “the transportation community is mostly talking to itself and living in denial about the changing political mood.” That mood—in the nation at large as well as in the next Congress— is unmistakably becoming more conservative and skeptical of big government. An overwhelming 70 percent of Americans think the government does not spend taxpayers’ money wisely, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. Newly elected members of Congress will be marching to the drum of fiscal discipline and looking for ways to curb out-of-control spending, a GOP aide told us. Congress will be closely questioning costly new federal initiatives no matter how well intentioned, he added. The expansive federal-aid surface transportation program as we have known it in the past may no longer be thought politically acceptable or fiscally affordable. And who knows, the new mood of fiscal restraint may even infect the White House. As one senior White House adviser, quoted in the Sunday Times Magazine story, put it, “there’s going to be very little incentive for big things over the next two years unless there’s some sort of crisis.” And we doubt that by this he meant “infrastructure crisis.”

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 21st year of publication.

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7 Responses to “Living in Denial”

  1. Jon Frey, PA-TEC says:

    Without a doubt, the cost of improving and expanding our nation’s rail system is significant, and with the current state of government budgets, massive funding for transit improvement projects can be seen as un-necessary and wasteful.

    In the Philadelphia metropolitan area, the commuter rail and transit system has been decimated by budget cuts and underfunding over several decades. A once viable streetcar system has all but vanished. Several commuter rail lines no longer exist, and in some cases, have been converted into recreational trails. Yet year after year, highway congestion worsens and the Delaware Valley remains in violation of EPA clean air standards.

    Our country needs to move beyond the state of funding highway expansion and maintenance projects first, and at the very least, fund transit and highway equally. We cannot sustain the amount of highways we have, yet they continue to grow. In Philadelphia, PennDOT is in the process of adding yet more lanes to Interstate 95 as part of a $6 billion dollar improvement project.

    The Philadelphia area has a serious driving problem and continuously shortchanges its mass transit system. The result has been the waste of millions of dollars in federal and state funds being directed towards meaningless improvement projects that enhance appearances but add zero improvements to the system’s utility.

    Not only does the next Congress need to act to invest in the right transportation programs, they must ensure that funding is directed towards programs that offer the best benefit for the investment made. An example in Philadelphia are plans by the region’s public transit agency, SEPTA, to build many massive parking garages throughout their system instead of re-opening dormant commuter lines in areas of high growth. While the intent of these plans is to improve access to the system, it serves only those who own cars, and guarantees continued reliance on automobiles. Further, it does not address the need to reduce VMT and increase rider miles on mass transit.

    America needs to get back to basics with transportation investments. It’s time to start investing in our most basic infrastructure which is our railroads and stations, without the fancy bells and whistles that make such investments unattainable. It’s time to stop starving our transit system into sustainability.

    For more information about the initiative to reinvest in our passenger rail system in Southeastern Pennsylvania, visit http://www.R8Newtown.com.

  2. Andrew says:

    It seems fitting to point out that in Switzerland, they can build a tunnel for $0.354B per mile. The ARC tunnel in New Jersey costs $1B per mile initially, and the overruns are up to $1.6B per mile. It seems to me that those in the transportation industry should look for ways to get infrastructure costs down to realistic levels.

    Also, there are people out there that publicly bash NJ Transit because of significant delays getting into and out of NY City. Saying that voters strongly approved of NJ Gov. Christie stopping work on the tunnel may be a bit of a mis-statement without a source, considering that it probably was not put to a real vote. (and no, I don’t live in NY or NJ nor have I been on either transit system)

  3. Andrea K says:

    If you don’t call a bridge falling down about 15 blocks from my house in 2007 a crisis what the hell is one?!??! That caused I-35 to be closed for months, right in the middle of Downtown Minneapolis. This was three years ago, not the 1960s.

    Are you living on Mars? The Civil Engineers say that our infrastructure gets a D rating. Where are these districts with low congestion and great roads? Every person I talk to grimly nods their head and sighs when I say our roads are in terrible shape, we don’t have enough transit options so people without a car can lead a semi-normal life and we need to invest in this to boost the economy and create jobs. $8B is too much for HSR? That’s the same cost as a week in Iraq. Who’s kidding whom here? Even Michelle Bachmann had no problem asking for $400 for a new bridge in her district.

    This is basic stuff, everyone outside the Beltway gets it. We have to fix transportation network at some point. Eventually we WILL spend that money. Why not do it at a time when people need work?

  4. Andrea K says:

    sorry that should have been $400 million

  5. alex says:

    maybe it’d help if we recognized that for the past 30 years americans have been marinating in a fetid bucket of ideological claptrap telling us that all public investment except for the military is bad, all tax cuts are goods, and that government is the problem. the fact of the matter is that we’ve become so blinkered by right wing orthodoxy that we simply don’t know what it means to invest in ourselves and our own prosperity.

  6. Nath.)an says:

    Good comments here.

    I’d like to think that “everyone outside the Beltway gets it,” but I’m afraid that commenter’s circle of friends and contacts are probably a little more educated than the average Joe. You have to remember that most Americans are ignorant. (Willfully, perhaps.) Not stupid, necessarily, though there are plenty who are, but ignorant in regards to reality. How many Americans have heard of the report the American Society of Civil Engineers’ report? I’d wager to guess no more than the percentage who reads the NY Times, which is a small number. Unfortunately, a major bridge collapsing in Minneapolis is a crisis to those who live there–and evident of one to the rest of us who know about the deplorable state of American infrastructure–but to everyone else it is just an isolated incident, long forgotten. Sad, but true. Short term memory’d.

    I’m afraid the logic of most Americans when they hear about “infrastructure” spending is something like this: “We live in the greatest country on Earth! The greatest country on Earth obviously has the greatest infrastructure. (And, hey, the roads in my little slice of suburbia are just fine.) So all this talk of infrastructure is just another ploy by the those damn socialist liberals who want to confiscate our cars and make us all ride trains like Europeans!”

    The current anti-government, anti-spending, anti-tax, anti-stimulus, anti-everything except the military is not is fueling this fire, and constitues a major threat to the future prosperity of this country. Many Tea Party candidates publicly espouse a platform that includes shuttering the DOT, among other departments. Clearly, none of them have the faintest idea where all the funding for their beloved freeways come from, but that is no matter. Nor does it matter that we could have had the infrastructure China is building for the cost of the Iraq war. I never understood how, if infrastructure is the backbone of the economy, and we all can agree that we want our economy to prosper–in a way that can genuinely compete with the BRICIs, not just churns out barista jobs at Starbucks for kids with MAs–why infrastructure investments aren’t a no-brainer. But I’ve come to realize that blind ideology trumps all in today’s political climate and infrastructure is just another wedge issue to turn voters against the “liberal” establishment. It’s comically shortsighted and egregiously irresponsible, but what in politics isn’t these days?

    God forbid that more bridges have to collapse and dams have to give way before Americans and the politicians get their heads out of their collective posteriors. But I’m afraid that is what will have to happen to catalyze change. As I believe it was Paul Krugman who said, the infrastructure crisis is the worst kind of crisis: a slow motion one that goes just under the radar until it becomes a massive problem.

    Or course, as another commenter mentioned, those of us in the transportation/planning/infrastructure community could serve our country by looking to the Europeans and reigning in costs.

  7. Eric says:

    “An overwhelming 70 percent of Americans think the government does not spend taxpayers’ money wisely”

    Where were all these concerns during the $trillions$ borrowed (and wasted) on bogus wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why weren’t people questioning the government THEN? And why do these discussions of “big government” always include infrastructure spending and proposed public healthcare, but never America’s military overstretch? The US has a military presence in 60+ countries, and a larger military budget than the rest of the world combined? Yet we can’t afford to fix bridges?

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