Hurricane Sandy A Wake Up Call To Strengthen U.S. Infrastructure: A Topic Lost In The Recent Presidential Campaign

Hurricane Sandy was a stark reminder as to how vulnerable U.S. cities are to natural disasters.  Sandy also illustrated just how critical infrastructure is to a metropolitan area’s economy.  We take it for granted until it is destroyed, the true value of infrastructure was brought home by the recent Superstorm, which showed us that we cannot afford to do without transportation and utility networks.  As reported in this post, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the nation’s infrastructure a failing grade of “D” in 2009, ranging from a D- for roads, waterways and levies to a D+ for energy transmission anda C for bridges.  Bringing these grades up to a more acceptable level will require a five year investment of $2.2 trillion!  Old U.S. Infrastructure is Costing BillionsInfrastructure News.  Repairing and upgrading the crumbling network of roads, bridges and utilities is in the wheelhouse of our readers and would not only boost the U.S. economy by creating jobs, but also would make this country more efficient and thus competitive.

Noticeably absent from the recent Presidential debates (as pointed out in this recent blog: Romney Obama Debate Avoided Major Economic Concerns) was a plan by the candidates for investment in the infrastructure.  Neither the campaign of Governor Romney, nor of President Obama were worthy of the challenges that this country faces.  When President Obama discussed transportation, it was usually in the context of pumping money into projects to generate jobs and boost the economy.  Candidate Romney, when answering questions regarding his transportation plan, indicated he favors more toll roads, including government and industry partnerships that generate private investment to pay for construction of new highways in exchange for the right to charge motorists for their use.  These partnerships are practical only in those situations where large scale projects can guarantee investors a steady income, and thus, opportunities are few and far between.  Last year President Obama proposed a 6-year $476 billion transportation program which Congress ignored.  The administration indicated the program would be paid from a “peace dividend” created by bringing the war in Afghanistan and Iraq to an end.  These wars were largely financed by borrowing and phasing them out does not create a new pool of cash.

Historically, transportation has been one of the very few issues that both Republicans and Democrats have agreed upon.  That bi-partisan consensus has evaporated in recent years.  Republicans have been unable to pass a transportation bill largely due to division in their own ranks.  Some GOP lawmakers wish to continue the large federal role in transportation that began with the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.  More conservative Republicans want to turn the transportation policy almost completely over to the states.  On the Democratic side, environmentalists and “smart-growth” advocates have increased their influence on transportation policy.  These Democrats want to use transportation aid to encourage denser housing close to mass transit that will encourage people to rely less on their cars.  They argue that highway aid ought to be limited to repairing and improving existing roads and bridges rather than new construction.  That does not mesh with the fact that new roads are necessary to relieve congestion where there is no mass transit.

Thus, there are starkly different visions of the federal role in surface transportation policy today that did not exist in the past.  Now that the election is over, we can look forward to more gridlock and endless bickering in the next four years, while our infrastructure slowly crumbles?

Daily Journal of Commerce, Tuesday, November 6, 2012

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