Fixing transportation makes too much sense for Congress

Fixing transportation makes too much sense for Congress Christopher Lee's plan to fix the roads and bridges and put millions of Americans to work

January 07, 2012|Dan Rodricks

Just doin' the Google and putting the pieces together, in an attempt to determine Christopher H. Lee's political affiliation (without actually asking the man), and the good guess was Republican. Years ago, after his graduation from the Johns Hopkins University, Mr. Lee wrote speeches for two Republican lawmakers from Ohio, and in 1998, when he started his Highstar Capital investment company, he did so with uber-lobbyist and GOP insider Wayne Berman.

Plus, he lives in Ruxton.

So that pretty much marks Mr. Lee as a Republican, and probably a mainstream Romney Republican as opposed to the tea party kind of Republican. The tea party kind would never lobby Congress for a $250 billion government investment in transportation infrastructure as a way of giving the U.S. economy a big boost.

Sounds like stimulus. Sounds like Keynes. Sounds like socialism to the Republican extremists who believe austerity and tax cuts -- not more spending and debt -- are the way out of tough times.

But Mr. Lee persists, a true believer in the wisdom of investment in infrastructure to support American commerce and to put millions of citizens to work again. He's taken his plan to Capitol Hill and to the media, without wearing his party affiliation on his sleeve, perhaps intentionally. Mr. Lee believes investing in infrastructure -- roads, bridges, airports, rail systems -- has wide bipartisan support, and polling results back him up.

Of course, "stimulus" got to be a dirty word in this country in the last two years.

The concept of government funding projects to shock the economy into recovery suffered from the Obama administration's 2009 package; it wasn't large enough, it didn't create enough jobs, and too much of it went for tax relief instead of public projects. President Barack Obama's try at another stimulus, aimed at creating jobs while improving transportation infrastructure, died last year.

"A major reason the administration's infrastructure bill failed to pass was Democrats' insistence on taxing millionaires to pay for bridges and Republicans' refusal to allow new taxes for bridges or anything else," Christopher Lee and his Highstar colleague Sean Medcalf wrote in Roll Call last month. "The administration plan was nothing more than a drop in the bucket anyway, as fewer than 100,000 new jobs would have been created."

What the country needs instead, say Mr. Lee and Mr. Medcalf, is a "game-changing, visionary and bold strategy, investing a trillion dollars in our deteriorating infrastructure so we can create 6 million quality jobs and get America moving again."

Mr. Lee believes $250 billion from the government will leverage another $750 billion in private capital. He says 6 million jobs is a conservative estimate.

Infrastructure investment and public-private projects are what float Mr. Lee's boat, and you can see it on display in the Port of Baltimore.

Mr. Lee's Highstar Capital controls Ports America, the company that entered into a 50-year contract with the state of Maryland to manage the Seagirt Marine Terminal. That deal already has led to more cargo container cranes, an additional berth and more jobs. In addition, Ports America is digging a deeper berth that will allow super-sized container ships from Asia to use the Port of Baltimore after passing through a widened Panama Canal. (The canal widening is expected to be complete in 2014.) Ports America projects a tripling of container shipment through Baltimore by 2020.

Mr. Lee touts his partnership with Maryland in the presentations he makes to Congress.

His plan calls for the establishment of a National Infrastructure Bank to finance improvements to airports, marine ports, roads and bridges, high-speed rail, renewable energy systems, dams and levies and wastewater treatment plants. The Lee proposal says such a bank would be self-sufficient after five years; the government would recover its investment in 10. Cash flow from user fees -- tolls on bridges and certain roads -- would be necessary to achieve that.

The Lee plan also calls for the development and funding of projects that serve the public but without any expectation of payback -- urban light rail, for instance, or rural airport upgrades -- and the creation of a board to fast-track public-private projects. "Fast-track" sounds Republican (it's usually a euphemism for skipping environmental regulations).

As it turns out, Mr. Lee is a registered Democrat who supported Martin O'Malley for governor and backs Mitt Romney for president. But the fact is, Mr. Lee's plan bears no ideology and a lot of common sense -- more, I suspect, than the current Congress can comprehend.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

Listen to a podcast of Dan Rodricks' WYPR interview with Christopher Lee at http://www.wypr.org/stationprogram/midday-dan-rodricks

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