Can Congress Change Infrastructure Policy?

Much of the National Governors Association's winter meeting here in Washington this past weekend was devoted to discussions about infrastructure. The message out of ...
by | February 25, 2009
 

Much of the National Governors Association's winter meeting here in Washington this past weekend was devoted to discussions about infrastructure.

The message out of the meeting echoed reports that have been put out over the past year by every national commission, think tank and interest group concerned with infrastructure -- the federal government has to take a more strategic approach.

Transportation spending, in particular, has almost nothing to do with policy. There aren't really overarching goals in federal transportation bills, such as reducing congestion or making roads safer. Instead, it's a federal aid program for states. The dollars don't promote projects of national interest -- untying the knots that tie up rail traffic through Chicago, for instance.

The state DOTs, which receive nearly all the money, simply aren't set up to work on projects that cross state borders. Even some state DOT secretaries will tell you that.

"We are simply incapable of crafting a national strategy that crosses state boundaries," Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, told governors during a plenary session Sunday.

It's a message Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has been pounding away at for some time, both in his role as NGA chair and through Building America's Future, the infrastructure advocacy group he created last year with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Rendell favors creation of a national infrastructure bank, which would be independently run and capable of funding projects of national interest, without being weighed down by parochial, political concerns. "It's an interesting proposal, getting Congress to give up its ability to earmark and appropriate," Rendell said, "but it's the best way for the country."

Rendell recognizes that not all or even most infrastructure spending will shift from the hands of Congress to the domain of disinterested technocrats. But he's optimistic that some money will be devoted to "transformational, catalytic" projects.

Mitch Daniels is not so sure. The Indiana governor, whom Rendell called "the Christopher Columbus of governors" for his singular success in pushing through a multibillion-dollar private partnership in transportation, expressed real skepticism about "depoliticizing a process that will always be political."

Daniels recalled that when the governors had their meeting with Barack Obama shortly after his election last year, there was unanimous agreement that the best way states could take advantage of any stimulus would "throw(ing) out rulebooks" -- relaxing standards on things like environmental impact studies in order to get projects moving faster.

And yet, Daniels said, that didn't happen with the stimulus package that was actually enacted. The same Congress that refused to give up authority in that way would never surrender its spending privileges, he suggested.

"You're going to need fierce momentum to change people who have fiercely protected turf all their careers," Daniels said.

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