Throwing money at crumbling infrastructure won’t be enough

By Tom Baxter

It’s one of the paradoxes of our great country that while nobody is satisfied with the pace of the economic recovery and everybody agrees our roads and bridges are falling in, you could have driven from here to Montreal this past summer and never been far from a work project and a lane closing.

This was an optical illusion created by bad governance, but it brings home a point about virtually the only issue on which there is said to be broad consensus this year, the infrastructure.

Since 2005, Congress has been unable to pass anything more than a kick-the-can transportation bill that extended spending past a couple of years. When it finally reached agreement on a long-term transportation bill in late 2015, there was so much pent-up asphalt paving money to spend that by early summer the interstate system had slowed to a scenic crawl.

All this road work represented an investment in the nation’s infrastructure, but it was an investment that should have been made over the years, not in the national version of a classic South Georgia asphalt spendarama.

The $305 billion unleashed by the 2015 highway bill represents a drop in the bucket compared to what the American Society of Civil Engineers says we need to spend to update our aging roads, bridges, railroads, airports, schools and water systems. But in political terms, getting this big a spending bill through Congress was no easy thing at all.

This has not deterred Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, whose positions on the nation’s infrastructure needs can be summarized as spend, and spend more.

Clinton has set a goal of passing a new five-year, $275 billion spending bill within the first 100 days of her administration, with $25 billion earmarked as seed money for a National Infrastructure Bank that would begin the process of financing for the nation’s longer-term infrastructure needs.

That, in Trump’s opinion, is just chump change.

“Well, I would say at least double her numbers, and you’re going to really need more than that,” Trump told Fox Business Network in an interview.

The fund he would create to finance an infrastructure upgrade sounds a lot like her bank, with a more enthusiastic sales pitch.

“We’ll make a phenomenal deal with the low interest rates… People would put money into the fund. The citizens would put money into the fund,” Trump said, explaining how he would pay for his program.

It’s going to take a lot more money just to keep the nation’s existing infrastructure intact, but it’s a pity the presidential campaign has generated nothing more than a competition to see who can throw the most money at the problem.

If Congress had passed a 5-year highway bill in 2010 rather than 2015, it would have provided an immediate, major boost to employment and the economy. Since then, employment in the construction industry has recovered to the point where there are questions about how much a bill passed next year would stimulate the economy, and whether a big infrastructure agenda might be stymied by a labor shortage.

More than that, we’re at an inflection point so far as the whole subject of infrastructure is concerned, and we need to figure out the questions as much as we do the answers.

— A few years ago driverless cars were the stuff of science fiction. Now General Motors is spending money figuring out how to make driverless cars acceptable to the general public, and serious people talk in terms of five-year windows. It will soon enough become evident that driverless vehicles can operate far more safely and efficiently on driverless highways. What issues does that raise for the way the nation allocates this big wad of money which both candidates want to spend?

— What about infrastructure improvements in coastal areas which might be underwater in 50 years? If you want to get into turbulent political waters, just wade into this issue. But it isn’t going away. The nation’s second-largest financial obligation after Social Security is the National Flood Insurance Program, which exposes taxpayers to an overall liability of $1.25 trillion. How long will we be able to afford that if climate patterns continue on the path they’re on?

— Trump complained in the first presidential debate of how much U.S. airports seem like a third-world country when you’re coming in from Dubai or China. What about the people coming in from Shreveport and Dayton? What kind of airports do they need?

— It doesn’t smell like tar or get hot in the sun, but the internet is now firmly established as part of what we call the infrastructure. How much is it really going to cost make it as secure as concrete? Should we take a page from the old Civil Defense classroom films of the 1950s and create videos to prepare our children for what to do in the event of an internet shutdown?

Those are just a few questions, probably not the best ones, that aren’t being asked this year, when there might still be time to impact the infrastructure of the future.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

2 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    Looking closer to home, Atlanta City estimated it had $1 billion in decayed infrastructure a few years ago. Since then City voters authorized a bond issue to address only 1/4 of the need. Money from that bond issue is siphoned off for non-infrastructure projects. When will the City address the $750+ million need not yet addressed?Report

    Reply

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