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Obama Boosts Infrastructure — but Too Late

One of the smartest policy thinkers I know, the Brookings Institution’s Bill Galston, praises President Barack Obama’s proposal to develop a National Infrastructure Bank as “win, win, win,” but he fears the president is advancing it too late. So do I.

Sadly, the politics of winning-through-infrastructure is turning terrible, with public investment of all kinds increasingly dismissed as mere “spending” or “pork.”

The NIB is a piece of Obama’s plan — unveiled on Labor Day and bolstered with a White House conference this week — to build or repair 150,000 miles of roads, 4,000 miles of rail tracks and 150 miles of airport runways over a six-year period.

First-year costs would be $50 billion — doubling federal transportation funding — with declining (but unspecified) outlays over the following five years. Details will be in next year’s budget.

It’s not clear how much money the NIB would get as seed capital, but the idea is that the independent entity would choose projects of major significance on a nonpolitical basis, then leverage public money to attract private investment.

Galston, a top domestic policy adviser in Bill Clinton’s White House, says win No. 1 is that the bank “would mobilize large amounts of private capital that is currently sitting on the sidelines.”

It’s estimated that as much as $3 trillion is being held in cash or Treasury bills by banks, corporations and institutional investors and is not being put to work. Republicans and Democrats fight over why — “uncertainty” about taxes and regulation versus lack of demand for goods — but properly structured user-fee infrastructure programs clearly could give investors better returns than 0.25 percent for T-bills.

Win No. 2, Galston says, is that a large-scale infrastructure program would “create good jobs that can’t possibly be outsourced,” especially in the construction industry, where the unemployment rate is 15 percent.

Estimates are that the economy needs to create 200,000 new jobs a month for five years to get the unemployment rate down from 9.6 percent to 5 percent, but job creation has averaged less than 12,000 a month over the past year.

The White House calculates $1 billion in infrastructure spending would create 10,000 jobs. The Federal Highway Administration says $1 billion in federal outlays, plus a 20 percent state match, creates nearly 35,000 jobs.

Win No. 3, Galston says, is that “this is a way to deal with an infrastructure problem that is truly massive — trillions of dollars in deferred maintenance which we are paying for in lost efficiency and, sometimes, reduced safety. This is work that needs to be done.”

A bipartisan panel of transportation experts assembled by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia and headed by former Transportation secretaries Norman Mineta and Sam Skinner just reported that the nation needs to spend $134 billion to $262 billion a year for 25 years to make its roads, rail systems and air transport world class.

As one example of America’s falling behind, a White House economic analysis this week noted that China has already built a rail line that covers 600 miles in three hours — the time it takes Amtrak’s “high-speed” Acela to cover 200 miles from Washington, D.C., to New York.

According to a Texas study, Americans in 439 urban areas spent some 4.2 billion hours sitting in congested traffic in 2007, the equivalent of a full workweek for the average commuter — and wasted about $87 billion in fuel.

According to the Mineta-Skinner report, the U.S. spends just 0.6 percent of gross domestic product on transportation infrastructure versus 1.85 percent spent by Western Europe.

As Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) pointed out in recent testimony, Europe’s infrastructure bank spent $350 billion from 2005 to 2009 modernizing seaports, expanding airports, building rail lines and reconfiguring city centers.

Actually, as Galston notes, there’s a win No. 4 to be had in creating an NIB: Governments — federal, state and local — can’t afford huge building programs. Private capital, which now represents a small fraction of infrastructure investment, needs to be deployed and the bank is the way to do it.

But for all these potential wins, Galston thinks — and so do I — that Obama is a year or 18 months too late, possibly diverted by his eagerness to pass health care reform.

It now smacks of more “stimulus spending,” even though transportation projects accounted for only 7 percent of Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package.

All infrastructure, including broadband deployment and smarter electric grids, accounted for less than a third.

The infrastructure bank — if it’s truly independent and replaces current Congressional formulas and earmarks for transportation projects — has support from Republican-leaning groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.

But even some pro-infrastructure Republicans, such as former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, say federal programs need to be reformed and the budget deficit dealt with before there are major new outlays.

Congressional Republicans, in their “Pledge to America,” contend that jobs can be created by keeping taxes low, cutting spending and eliminating regulation. There is no mention of public investment.

And then we have the tea party, which thinks “public” means “socialist.”

Obama could have — should have — based his economic recovery strategy on making U.S. infrastructure world class. Alas, he didn’t.

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