Streams

How Infrastructure Politics Turned Partisan: Looking Back on Four Years

Sunday, September 23, 2012 - 05:14 PM

The Champlain Bridge in Vermont, Demolished in 2009, Over Safety Concerns (Photo: Collin Campbell)

Not too long ago, an ad for Audi cars sought to relate to the average driver with grimly shot footage of rutted roads, rotting bridges, and frayed guardrails. “Across the nation, over 100,000 miles of roads and bridges are in disrepair,” a female announcer intones.

That this rhetoric could turn up in an ad is a metaphor of the current acceptance of America’s rather sorry infrastructure. In its latest report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave American infrastructure a "D.”

In 2008, Republicans and Democrats pretty much agreed that investing in infrastructure is a national priority. Here's an excerpt from the 2008 GOP platform:

We support a level of investment in the nation's transportation system that will promote a healthy economy, sustain jobs, and keep America globally competitive. We need to improve the system's performance and capacity to deal with congestion, move a massive amount of freight, reduce traffic fatalities, and ensure mobility across both rural and urban areas.

We urgently need to preserve the highway, transit, and air facilities built over the last century so they can serve generations to come. At the same time, we are committed to minimizing transportation's impact on climate change, our local environments, and the nation's energy use. Careful reforms of environmental reviews and the permitting process should speed projects to completion.

It's hard to remember that that was just four years ago -- when Senator Barack Obama was running against Senator John McCain.

In 2012, supporting infrastructure couldn't be more partisan.

In one of the most-quoted pieces of video />

made this campaign, President Barack Obama argues that success relies on collective action, including big infrastructure projects. Obama: "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help...  Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

But to Republicans, that sounded like an argument against individual ingenuity. "We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones," former Governor Mitt Romney said in his acceptance speech, describing all the reasons our parents and grandparents came to this county, including "freedom to build a life. And yes, freedom to build a business with their own hands."

It was huge applause line. The theme even became a country  song Lane Turner performed at the convention, with the refrain, "I built it, with no help from Uncle Sam."

That Uncle Sam has a big role in building infrastructure has been a pretty consistent theme for President Obama. His $800 stimulus bill had big sums for highways, transit, and high speed rail. He's proposed big transportation budgets every year.

But republicans see it differently. Arguing the country can't afford more debt, Republican Governors sent stimulus money back to the federal government.   In Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida, they stopped high speed rail projects in their tracks.  But they weren't  the first republicans to send big bucks back to D.C.

But before Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Scott of Florida had even won office, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie started a modern trend: sending billions back to the federal government for a local transit project rather than risk incurring extra debt for New Jersey taxpayers. In October, 2010, Christie pulled the plug on an already-started transit tunnel under the Hudson River -- the so-called ARC tunnel. " In the end the taxpayers of New Jersey would be on the hook for every nickel of the cost overruns," Christie said, explaining the decision.

"When you become governor, and you start to become presented with the information I was presented with you're presented with now a choice of a project that I do think is a worthwhile project but that we simply can't afford," Christie added.

Christie's Democratic counterpart in New York, Andrew Cuomo, took a different approach. Without the financing in hand, Cuomo greenlighted his own massive infrastructure project -- a new $5 billion Tappan Zee bridge.

"As a society, as a government, as a state, we have to be able to get to yes," Cuomo told reporters after he'd applied for the funds. "We have to be able to build a bridge that needs to be replaced.  If we want this state to be what we want this state to be you have to be able to tackle a project like this."

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Comments [7]

Dave

The reality is that while more money is needed to improve infrastructure, much of what is spent is wasted. The "stimulus package" included only about $65 Billion out of the $800 B total for Infrastructure/Transportation related expenditures. If you drill down into those expenditures you will find that much of it went back to the government for permit fees etc.. Spend some time on the Federal Governments website "recovery.gov". It includes details for where the money went. A big piece of that $65B went to paying local agencies for permit fees and other non-job creating expenses. While it must be very hard for a Governor to turn down Fed handouts, in some cases they did the right thing because the Fed money usually requires a 75 to 80% local match which means to accept $2B Fed money you have to commit $8B State/Local money which many States can't afford. At the same time creeping regulations have doubled the cost of projects in the last 10 years due to "mitigation" extortion and obstructionist lawsuits. When you put these things in context, not all infrastructure spending is a sound investment.

Sep. 27 2012 10:05 AM
Wells

Please more clearly state and admit that state highway departments invest more in highways than necessary, practical, sensible.

Transportation infrastructure must be multi-modal, else the dominant mode (cars/trucks) will continue to present a severe impediment to the others (transit/ped/bicycle), and to its own optimal function.

Sep. 26 2012 01:26 PM
Skyler Yost

While I would have been inclined to believe that partisan politics is the only thing behind decisions not to fund public infrastructure projects like the ARC tunnel and I'm heavily inclined to lean towards the thought that Republicans are just trying to torpedo the President's initiatives and make him look ineffectual, I've come to learn the long-term value of some of their cantankerous efforts to block infrastructure spending. Our current model of spatial growth is financially impossible to maintain. While we need investments in things like HSR and ways to connect remote communities to each other more quickly and at less cost to the users, our infrastructure spending mainly goes to terribly overpriced projects that bet on future growth to make the projects viable in the first place. These projects give the public incredibly low ROI (return on investment) in their first life cycle, and frequently negative ROI once replacement costs of the first life cycle are factored in. I'm a proponent of creating an America with truly competitive infrastructure, but I can't justify increasing transportation funding if the vast majority of it goes into projects like this:

http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2010/11/29/the-ridiculous-old-economy-project-that-wont-die.html

The form of growth we've relied on for the past 60 years does not work long-term. Not all calls to de-fund DOTs across the country are noble, but the transportation community needs to start understanding where there is legitimate criticism of their professions when there is some. Only once that happens will the rational portions of the country be confident that the transportation community is making wise investments and will then be able to overwhelm those that use infrastructure as a weapon to torpedo the economy.

Key readings to understand where I'm coming from:

http://www.strongtowns.org/facts/
http://www.strongtowns.org/mechanisms-of-growth/
http://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme/

Sep. 26 2012 12:17 AM
Bruce

Dave Imrett has it right. Integrity is far and away my most important criterion for a political candidate to get my vote. Of course, not one has passed my integrity test so then I must resort to lesser criteria. If politicians would discuss their positions honestly, at least in the proverbial backrooms(!), then politicians would begin to make positive progress for this country. Things are so partisan that is not happening. Politicians are already hard to trust since they will ostensibly say anything to get elected. They become worse when they must further take on positions to satisfy a party line.

Sep. 24 2012 06:26 PM
Dave Imrett

The reason that so many members of the public and a lot of republican politicians don't support infrastructure is that they simply don't believe that anyone in government is telling the truth, or working in the public's best interest. There has been so much malfeasance, chicanery and outright lying and lawlessness by elected officials, usually without any consequence, that the trust that used to exist between the government and the governed has broken down. The only answer I can think of is to start insisting on integrity as the absolute qualifier for anyone worthy of our vote. When we start voting for someone who plays fast and loose with the truth because we agree with his overall policies we have started committing long term national suicide.

Sep. 24 2012 05:07 PM
Kenneth Orski

Those of us whose livelihood and/or professional interests revolve around transportation have a natural and understandable tendency to believe in the reality and importance of the "infrastructure crisis". It requires taking a step back and looking at the broader national context to realize that politicians and the public do not necessarily share the same sense of urgency. People ignore or are skeptical of "the sky is falling" rhetoric because (a) they consider other issues of far more importance (witness the presidential campaign); or (b) because they do not see any evidence of "crumbling infrastructure" around them; or (c) because they don't trust the tax money to be spent wisely; or (d) because they think the alarm about our bridges and roads "falling apart" is self-serving and largely inspired by stakeholders, lobbyists and special interests (incl. the American Society of Civil Engineers). All four reasons are frequently cited by lawmakers on Capitol Hill as reasons for congressional inaction.

Sep. 24 2012 09:41 AM
Robert

Reporting Please.
In a story about our crumbling infrastructure, Ms. Bernstein doesn't mention that Republicans have blocked routine multi-year Transportation funding bills and forced 8 or 9 short term extensions of current funding, all to prevent the economy from eperiencing any stimuative effect. Large construction projects are thwarted proceed with 6-month funding windows, and the economy (and employment) shows the effect.
Also, to say, "But to Republicans, that sounded like an argument against individual ingenuity" is just too naive for my consumption.

Sep. 24 2012 08:56 AM

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