Infrastructure: What's It Going to Take?

By Fawn Johnson

Correspondent, National Journal

It seems like there's a lot of talk about the importance of infrastructure investment in Washington, but not a lot of action. The administration and key transportation leaders in Congress both say they want a highway bill before August, but the chances of meeting that goal shrink with each passing day that a bill isn't circulated. The natives (i.e., industry) are getting restless. Transportation for America put out a report last week titled "The Fix We're In For," saying 1 in 9 bridges and overpasses is in poor enough condition to be dangerous. AECOM Technology put out a white paper last week titled "U.S. Infrastructure: Ignore the Need or Retake the Lead?" arguing that highways, bridges, and public works require "urgent attention."

When lawmakers aren't fully engaged in staving off a government shutdown, the infrastructure conversation endlessly revolves around money. If you want investment, you have to come up with a way to pay for it, says Congress. Thus far, the Obama administration and congressional Republicans are dancing around the pay-for question, daring the other to come up with an answer first. (As in most negotiations, they know that the first one to offer a number loses the battle.)

Meanwhile, infrastructure continues to erode. What's it going to take to move beyond a simple pay-for question among lawmakers? Who needs to make the first move, Congress or the White House? Is it possible to have a conversation about the details of highway, rail, or transit plans when the top-level debate is dominated by spending concerns? What can industry groups do to convince policymakers that they need to do more than just talk?

TEN's Response:

LBarrettDon't Wait for A Miracle, Work for It

Laura Barrett, Executive Director, Transportation Equity Network

What will it take to end the political volleyball and make a real reauthorization bill possible? It will take members of Congress opening their ears to the sorts of stories they heard when over 100 TEN community leaders from around the country hit Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

They heard from a TEN member in Oakland, CA, who wakes at 4 a.m. to walk her granddaughter to the bus stop in the dark for the start of 2-hour, 3-bus commute to a decent high school. They heard how hardworking people are being forced to turn down job offers because of a lack of reliable transit. They heard of the health crises that result when people are cut off from transportation access to health care and healthy food.

It will take them opening their ears to people like Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, who told attendees of TEN’s “One Nation, Indivisible” conference on Monday:

For some people, a reliable transit system is the difference between seeing their kids at night or not. It’s the difference between having dinner as a family or not. The difference between being able to supervise homework or not. These are the passengers that have no choice of whether to endure whatever service we serve up—clean or dirty, convenient or inconvenient, reliable or unreliable.

It will take them realizing that infrastructure investment may be the greatest source of political accord in the nation at the moment—one with the power to unite Sen. Barbara Boxer, Rep. John Mica, U.S Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

It will take them looking further than the next fundraiser on their schedule and understanding that an entire generation of economic prosperity is at stake. As USDOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari said at TEN’s conference this week:

We face a choice going forward. There’s a kind of false dichotomy, a false choice that we’re being presented between policies on the left or policies on the right. It’s not left or right, it’s forward or backward. It’s a choice between investing in the future, leaving a better future for the next generation just like parents and grandparents did for us, or ignoring these hard choices and sentencing the next generation to a lower standard of living, to fewer opportunities, and a future that we could do better by. We’re here with your help to do big things.

You can say all this means that it will take a miracle. But those of us who are steeped in centuries of grassroots struggles to realize the promise of democracy—the dream of America as “one nation, indivisible”—aren’t used to for miracles. We’re used to working for them.

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