Momentum might be building to build up the U.S. infrastructure

GETTING THERE

November 17, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,getting.there@baltsun.com

By the end of next year Americans will likely be sick and tired of hearing the word "infrastructure."

Rebuilding of the nation's highways, mass transit systems and power grids hardly cracked the top hundred issues during the 2008 presidential campaign. But all along, through primary season and the general election, President-elect Barack Obama was a cheerleader for stimulating the economy by spending on tangible public works projects.

You don't need a Ouija board to discern that "infrastructure" is going to be the political buzzword of 2009. All the forces are aligned for a renewed enthusiasm for spending on roads, bridges, transit lines and other projects that will keep yielding benefits for decades to come. Don't count on any more stimulus checks subsidizing purchases of imported flat-screen TVs.

For one thing, infrastructure spending is in the tank now. Transportation money has dried up in states all over the country. The federal Highway Trust Fund is running on fumes. Maryland State Highway Administrator Neil Pedersen is wondering whether his agency will be able to keep up with basic maintenance after the next round of revenue projections. The overall economy looks just as bad - with unemployment rising sharply. In Maryland and other states, transportation agencies have fully designed projects on hold, lacking the money to start up the tractors.

Obama is on the record as a supporter of creation of a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to invest $60 billion in projects over the next 10 years. With a Democratic Congress, he should have little difficulty in creating and funding such an enterprise.

Politically, it's a likely winner. In addition to being a unifying issue for liberal and moderate Democrats, a massive commitment to infrastructure would also pick up the support of important Republican-leaning constituencies such as contractors, trucking firms, manufacturers and utilities.

Even with 365 electoral votes in his pocket, Obama would surely relish the prospect of expanding his base even further. Seizing the legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower from the Republican Party could help accomplish that goal. So would forging an alliance with Republican governors such as California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, a big booster of infrastructure spending.

The advantage of infrastructure spending for a liberal-leaning president is that it doesn't carry the whiff of welfare. It appears hard-headed, practical and anything but effete. Cutting a stimulus check? "Girly-man" stuff, Schwarzenegger would say. Rebuilding a bridge? That's macho stimulus.

By 2012, an Obama administration could have hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of pickup-driving, Carhartt-wearing former McCain voters employed in lucrative jobs paving roads, building transit lines and connecting wind turbines to the electrical grid. Even Joe the Plumber could apply.

Sure, any such package will raise howls from a new flock of deficit hawks, taking flight on creaky wings after eight years of being grounded under George W. Bush. But with a deep recession looming, the pressure on Obama to balance the budget will be minimal. His charge is to create jobs that lead to the creation of still more jobs.

The historical timing is right for massive investments. All over the country, bridges that were built as part of the Interstate Highway System are nearing the end of their useful lives. Traffic congestion in major metropolitan areas is sparking new interest in mass transit. The philosophical aversion to investments in high-speed intercity rail that has marked the past eight years is about to be loaded up on a moving truck and sent to that new presidential library in Texas.

We can expect Obama to give a nod to his backers in the environmental lobby by giving his infrastructure plan a decidedly green tint. Transit projects and alternative energy transmission facilities will move to the front of the line. Given the industry's relatively low fuel consumption per ton hauled, freight rail projects should do well. Maybe Maryland can finally get the federal funds it will take to replace the obsolete Howard Street Tunnel and break the bottleneck that's strangling the port of Baltimore.

There is a distinct danger that a lot of the money will be poured into wasteful ventures. But after years of underinvestment in infrastructure, there's a considerable backlog of Bridges to Somewhere and other righteous projects. The challenge will be to apply the brakes when those start running out.

One way or another, the mantra of the new administration is likely to be a twist on the chant heard at the Republican National Convention:

Build, baby, build.

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