Washington refocuses on infrastructure

As a recent professor of constitutional law, presidential candidate Barack Obama doubtless knows that the founding rule book of these United States provides that “The Congress should have power To . . . establish Post Offices and post roads.”

Maybe that's why Obama, in contrast to John McCain, is advocating the feds play a larger role in improving our national transportation network.

Obama laid out his themes clearly in a June 21 speech in Miami to the U.S. Conference of Mayors titled “Strategy for America's Future.”

“We'll unlock the potential of all our regions by connecting them with a 21st century infrastructure,” he said. “You know why this is so important. You see the traffic along I-95 in Miami … the crumbling roads and bridges, the aging water and sewer pipes, the faltering electrical grids that cost us billions in blackouts, repairs, and travel delays.”

Obama went on to urge investing in “a world-class transit system, . . .green energy technology, . . . and in our ports, roads, and high-speed rails.”

National concern growing

Policy wonks and concerned citizens alike are showing sharpened concern about the health, safety and quality of the nation's infrastructure. The collapse of a federal interstate bridge in Minneapolis a year ago, killing 13, appeared to be the final tipping point.

Just 10 days before Obama's Miami speech, the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program held a conference that advocated metropolitan areas as a focus for renewed federal infrastructure investment.

In May, the America 2050, a project of the Regional Plan Association in New York, held a conference, “Rebuilding and Renewing America: Toward a 21st Century Infrastructure Investment Plan,” underscoring the historic legacy of national transportation planning, a theme Obama emphasized.

Congress also has been turning to the issue. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, has introduced legislation to establish a “Commission on Rebuilding America for the 21st Century,” featuring a renewed federal role in infrastructure development. In the Senate, Republican Chuck Hagel and Democrat Chris Dodd have introduced a bill to establish a National Infrastructure Bank, with a board, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, to evaluate large infrastructure projects and issue debt to pay for them.

There's strong bipartisan interest among the nation's governors as well. Last winter Edward Rendell, D-Pa., and Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif. – in alliance New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Govs. Charlie Crist, R-Fla., Janet Napolitano, D-Ariz., and others – announced a new “Building America's Future” focused on the need for major infrastructure investments.

All this seems to escape McCain. When he touches transportation issues at all, it's to condemn congressional earmarks and urge cutting pork from appropriation bills. He does talk a great deal about energy, fuel-efficient autos and nuclear power. But not the mega-issue of surface transportation. Roads and rails aren't mentioned on his Web site. And McCain has been a consistent opponent of Amtrak.

Mixed results

Federal investment in transportation has always brought mixed results. The feds helped the private railroads in the 19th century with land, cash and special powers. This built a huge national train network, but left some smaller towns and cities at the mercy of single railroad companies.

In the early 20th century, the federal Bureau of Public Roads did a good job building the enormous secondary road system. But with the interstate system in the 1950s, Washington's massive investment in highways, helped sink passenger and freight rail service, spawning sprawl coast to coast.

In the early '90s Congress did move to structure federal transportation spending to bolster metropolitan regions, mass transit and even sidewalks. But that vision has declined under the pressure of earmarks and muddied transportation goals.

Could all these factors presage a fresh burst of federal attention to basic infrastructure? Since roads and rails do cross state lines, a national government role seems indispensable. But there's a caution: In dealing with Washington, always be careful what you wish for.