News
05.21.2008
If You Build It, They Will Vote
Presidential candidates sound off on the suddenly chic subject of infrastructure

“Reverend Wright!” 

“Tuzla!”

“Reverend Wright!”

“Gas Tax!”

Those expecting a robust and enlightened political discourse this primary season are no doubt disappointed with the political theater staged in its place, especially when the country is in such seemingly dire straits. And yet for those concerned about the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, it’s turning into a banner year after all, as the candidates discuss issues ranging from the levees of New Orleans to the bridges of Minneapolis, the steam pipes of Manhattan, and the blackouts of California.

According to a report by the Urban Land Institute, the United States is—absent repairs, improvements, and expansions—racking up an annual infrastructure debt of $170 billion. “Roads, ports, grids, bridges, public transportation, clean energy—infrastructure encompasses a lot of things, none of them very sexy,” said Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture critic for The New Republic and a vocal advocate for infrastructure maintenance and improvement. “Is this going to happen? Well, it depends on who gets elected.”

Though at the top of no one’s list of priorities, infrastructure has played a larger role in this primary than in those of the last few decades. Democratic candidates have created far more detailed infrastructure plans than their Republican rivals, including speeches and policy papers, though even John McCain and Ron Paul have spoken out on the topic, most notably following the collapse of the I-35 bridge last summer in Minnesota. Infrastructure issues factor into all of the candidates’ larger economic policy plans.

If there were one, Barack Obama could be called the candidate of infrastructure; at least in much the same way he is called the candidate of hope, given his frequent invocation of infrastructure issues on the stump, much of which was tied to Katrina and directed toward his African-American base but has shifted in recent months to a wider focus on the economy and job creation.

To that end, Obama has proposed an Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, which he unveiled in February. The bank would start with $60 billion from federal coffers—skimmed off shrunken Iraq expenditures—that would be leveraged through public-private partnerships to create $500 billion in infrastructural investment. 

That money would go to strengthening the “core” infrastructure of roads, airports, dams, and the like; high-speed rail; traffic mitigation and transit-oriented development; clean, domestic energy production and research; and rebuilding and improving the Gulf Coast and river-borne transportation.

Hillary Clinton, as on many other Democratic policy points, shares many ideas with Obama. The key difference may be their approach. Clinton unveiled her plan last summer, a week after the bridge collapsed, though it has not come up much since. She does, however, have deeper policy experience and government savvy.

Clinton calls for a more detailed, less blanket approach. Given the timing of her plan, she would create a $10 billion Emergency Repair Fund to address the nation’s most imperiled (and imperiling) infrastructure as well as $250 billion in federal grants for additional study and repairs. Public transit funding would increase by $1.5 billion per year, and she would increase focus on transit-oriented development and intra-city rail links. Her plan pushes for congestion-pricing schemes and modernized ports, as well as nationwide, next-generation broadband. On the flip side, she has endorsed the gas tax holiday.

John McCain has yet to make any specific infrastructure prescriptions, with the exception of developing alternative fuels and “strengthening” our infrastructure against terrorist attacks. Following the bridge collapse, McCain did say that the federal government spends too many tax dollars on “pork-barrel projects” instead of maintenance on existing infrastructure, though gave no details on how he would make the shift. (The McCain campaign did not return calls for comment.) And the crypto-Libertarian Republican candidate Ron Paul would sooner privatize everything. As he wrote in an essay entitled “Aging Infrastructure,” “In a government-controlled model, infrastructure is nothing but a cumbersome liability.”

With all this talk of infrastructure, will any of it matter when the eventual winner enters office next January, or is it all just a bunch of electioneering? “There’s a little bit of talk, but it’s not enough to make me think they’re serious or that it’s a top ten priority,” Urban Land Institute president Richard Rosan said. “My impression is, they’re just not very worried about it.”

Matt Chaban