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America Needs a Smart Infrastructure Program
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With less than a week before the presidential election, attention in the nation’s capital is turning slowly to what might be accomplished during the “lame duck” - that period when legislative business is conducted after the voting has done but before the new Congress is sworn in.
The rhetoric is hot right now, so hot it seems to have crowded out the possibility Democrats, Republicans, and outgoing President Barack Obama can agree on, well, anything.
That’s only on the surface. Dig deeper and you’ll find politicians from Obama and Republican nominee Donald Trump to GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan and incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on down saying nice things about the need to do something drastic about the nation’s commercial infrastructure, which is badly in need of an upgrade.
“Thanks to years of waste and abuse----not to mention poor prioritization of projects----our infrastructure is not up to American standards,” Ryan said back in September. He’s made what he’s calling infrastructure upgrades a priority. Schumer told CNBC’s John Harwood he wants to fund large infrastructure project with revenue generated by a deal on stranded overseas U.S. corporate profits. And infrastructure projects mean jobs, jobs, jobs ---- the three magic words to any president in any party. The question is how to get it done.
Whether or not the federal government should be involved in infrastructure projects isn’t a question - it goes back at least as far as the first third of the 19th century to Henry Clay and his program of national “improvements. There are people who think things like new roads, bridge repair, and the construction of water tunnels and a new electric grid should be handled at the state or local level, through user fees, and through private investment. Given the level of disrepair, the need for new construction, and the demands of a commercial economy serving close to 300 million people, not to mention visitors from other countries that not practical.
It may also be penny wise and pound foolish. Remember what Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard said about being sent into sub-orbital space in a capsule atop a rocket made by people whose major commonality was they were all the lowest bidder.
With interest rates at near record lows, these projects could be financed ---- at least in part ---- by low rate hundred year bonds perfect for institutional investors. Some projects, like the construction of New York City’s Water Tunnel No 3 which began in 1970 and won’t be done until at least 2020, take nearly that long to complete.
There also needs to be a revision in the way such projects are planned. Continuing to bid projects out with an emphasis on finding the lowest costs up front is not in the nation’s long-term interest. Cheaper isn’t necessarily better. Take water infrastructure, an issue the House took up just before going on recess. Upgrades made using PVC piping may seem a sensible choice, for example, because of the initial costs. But PVC doesn’t last as long as other alternatives like ductile iron pipe, which is lead free, suitable for all environments, and lasts two to three times as long. In some cases it may cost more to install upfront but provides better value long-term.
This is the kind of thinking that, properly employed, can put America back to work on a crash program to make our roads and bridges and tunnels and airports and harbors the envy of the world once again. It not likely a national infrastructure initiative will overcome what are essentially political problems.
It won’t stop the unlawful demonstrations underway by self-appointed social justice warriors intent on blocking construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and it won’t stop the so-called environmentalists standing in the way of a revival of the Keystone Pipeline. Those are both projects that should already be well underway.
For the most part though, a national infrastructure program that isn’t just phony economic stimulus is what the country needs and it needs it now. It’s the responsibility of government and it’s been neglected too long in too many places.
Let’s make “Better, faster and longer lasting” a rallying cry and fix our public works.
Roff is a former senior political writer for UPI and a well-known commentator based in Washington, D.C. Email him at