February 25, 2009 — Infrastructure may not be sexy, but it ought to continue as a priority for the new Obama administration beyond the recently passed stimulus bill, according to panelists — including Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — who spoke Saturday at a discussion co-sponsored by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.
"Priorities for a New President," the second season of the National Discussion and Debate Series, kicked off Saturday at the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington with a discussion about developing a national infrastructure policy.
Rendell and Schwarzenegger joined JayEtta Hecker of the Bipartisan Policy Center and the RAND Corporation and Douglas Foy of Serrafix Corp., Massachusetts' former secretary of commonwealth development, to explore the topic: "Government at all levels must work together to create a comprehensive infrastructure policy in concert with national energy, environmental, and economic priorities."
The conversation, moderated by Robert MacNeil, founder and former co-anchor of the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," took place before an audience of the nation's governors.
During his opening remarks, Rendell called President Obama's stimulus package a good first step in addressing infrastructure challenges — but it's "barely 5 percent" of what infrastructure experts say is needed.
Schwarzenegger agreed in his remarks, saying that while the stimulus bill was a disappointment, given that an estimated $250 billion is needed annually to handle infrastructure needs, it's a great beginning toward wider agreement on how the government should proceed.
Any infrastructure policy must come with four conditions, Rendell argued: accountability, environmental sustainability, proper funding sources and a clear selection process that takes politicians and politics out of the process. He later talked about the idea of a federal "infrastructure czar" – someone to coordinate all aspects of policy pertaining to infrastructure.
Foy, now a consultant who formerly oversaw Massachusetts' Transportation, Housing, Environment and Energy agencies under Gov. Mitt Romney, talked at length about the need for coordination among agencies, noting that while in state government he introduced two agency secretaries who had both been in office for years but had never met, much less coordinated efforts. He advocated repairing existing structures and systems and giving equal attention to all forms of transportation, rather than referring to "alternative transportation."
Referring to any type of transportation but roads as "alternative transportation," Foy said, "is like referring to a woman as 'an alternative man.'"
Schwarzenegger suggested that officials need a "sexier word than infrastructure" and a way of marketing the issue that helps people to understand how infrastructure issues affect them: for instance, the difference traffic issues make in their lives, or how important it is to have a functioning levee system in place in their communities before a storm comes "that makes Katrina look small." Trying that approach in California resulted in voters passing his infrastructure referendum.
The issue is not about improving the national transportation and infrastructure policy, but rather about creating one, argued Hecker, who formerly oversaw physical infrastructure issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Without integrated goals, she continued, no system could succeed. Hecker said that the problem with the stimulus plan is that it perpetuates the notion that the federal government can come up with the funding to cope with the large infrastructure issues — which puts off the notion of strategic planning. Inefficiencies and a lack of planning are detrimental to addressing the issues, she said. "It's not about fixing potholes, but about optimizing performance."
Rendell said he supports a "fix-it-first" strategy. "Before we build anything new, we've got to get what we have in first-rate condition," he said. This would also help the environment by preventing sprawl, he added.
Schwarzenegger cited the importance of alternative transportation. "Our infrastructure in this country is like that of a developing country, rather than a developed one," he said. "Our trains go the same speed today as they were 100 years ago, so where's the progress?"
Schwarzenegger also cited more responsible use of air travel: "We don't need to fly with a plane when we fly nearly 200 miles. A lot of people in California do that, or 400 miles; you can have high-speed rail that there's very little pollution this way, very little greenhouse gas emissions."
Foy continued on the theme of coordination and communication among the different agencies involved. The kind of coordinated strategy that some states have adopted needs to exist at the federal level, he said, and people need to understand how sweeping and expensive the critical framework of the country is.
"We have been a nation that has largely been focused on spending rather than investing these dollars," Foy said. "And that's, I think, the whole core of this."
He and Rendell agreed that having an infrastructure "czar" could keep policy consistent and comprehensive, and coordinate strategies and efforts across various agencies.
Schwarzenegger explored balancing the short-term goal of job creation against the long-term goal of infrastructure improvement. "For every billion dollars that you spend on infrastructure, you create 18,000 to 25,000 jobs," he said.
While Foy said he believes more jobs would result from a "fix-it-first" policy, Hecker argued that efficient technology use was a better indicator than job creation of good investment.
"The measure of jobs is the worst possible indicator of good, strategic investment and planning," she said. Ideally, Hecker reasoned, federal money should go to states with conditions that reward performance benchmarks.
During closing remarks, Foy argued that all levels of government should be involved in infrastructure policy and funding, and that their reasoning must be clear to the American people. Schwarzenegger stated that just as America was able to envision and implement landing on the moon, it must have a vision for these challenges as well. Hecker suggested re-examining the federal-state relationship in relation to infrastructure spending and investment, and Rendell advocated addressing the situation as urgently as possible.
More information, including debate video and a transcript, can be found on the Miller Center Web site[link to: www.millercenter.org/debates/infrastructure].
Upcoming debate topic are Iran on March 25, affirmative action on April 16 and energy on May 14.