Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has made infrastructure the centerpiece of his presidency of the National Governors Association and, along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, started a group last year called Building America's Future to lobby for federal infrastructure spending.
Naturally, Rendell is pleased by reports that the forthcoming economic stimulus bill is likely to include something on the order of $100 billion for infrastructure. But he also says he's worried.
At an infrastructure symposium Monday at the Brookings Institution, Rendell said he's concerned that such a big expenditure at the start of the new Congress and the Obama administration may lead policy makers to feel they've "checked the box" on infrastructure and won't get around to pursuing serious policy changes in the way dollars for transportation, water and other infrastructure get allocated.
"Shovel-ready" projects may create jobs and generate orders for idle contractors, but they won't lead to long-term changes, Rendell warned.
"This is not the time just to do business as usual, to throw money at the states through the usual formulas," he said.
Instead, Rendell would like the stimulus to "put down markers" toward future policy changes, whether in the upcoming transportation reauthorization or in other federal debates. Getting rid of pork would be a start, he said. Along with other advocates, he favors a more strategic and professional approach to national infrastructure policy, in place of the present politics-driving earmarking.
He also wants to change the overall financing of infrastructure, including the creation of an infrastructure bank as a step toward a federal capital budget. Obama talked in favor of creating such a bank during the campaign, but Rendell said, "I hear disturbing rumors that the infrastructure bank is in danger of being tabled."
Rendell claims that polling down for Building America's Future shows enormous majorities in favor of increased investment in infrastructure, even at the price of higher taxes, with citizens caring most about updating the nation's electrical grid and other energy infrastructure. "Infrastructure isn't sexy," he noted, "but it can be and it should be."
That's why he turned to Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg as partners in his effort. Each has promoted infrastructure investment within his jurisdiction, Rendell said, but they can also draw attention to the issue more effectively than he can.
"They're stars," Rendell said. "It's like Twins all over again."