Infrastructure: A Problem That Must Be Solved

Lessons on taking the long view from former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

I have often said that the best sort of problem is one that must be solved. A problem that must be solved is most likely to get serious attention, and thus is more likely to produce a positive outcome.

A recent guest column for Governing by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, “Why Are We Letting Our Infrastructure Fall to Pieces?” discusses the Washington, D.C., metro shutdown and more generally focuses on the sad condition of our nation's roads, rails, bridges and pipelines. It should be required reading for any serious public servant.

While serving as mayor of Chattanooga, I had the privilege of meeting LaHood on a few occasions. One of those meetings was a chance encounter. I was doing what mayors often do: trying to make a special case for transportation funding affecting my community and lobbying for initiatives we felt were essential to our region's welfare. One of those projects was an innovative high-speed rail connection between the Chattanooga and Atlanta airports, with eventual plans for a northern extension to Nashville's airport close to 300 miles away. Admittedly, it sounds something like a pipe dream, especially in the context of today's economic trials and international terrorism – and that’s the point.

We had started the planning for the high-speed rail link before the Great Recession. Much of the preliminary engineering and necessary environmental studies had been completed. I was preparing to wind up my term as mayor, and though it wasn't widely known at the time, LaHood would soon move on as well. It was one of those gatherings of mayors at a reception in the White House. When the president arrived, everyone rushed to the velvet rope in hope of a handshake and a photo. I let the newcomers have their day and decided to hang back. As good fortune would have it, LaHood was also in the back of the room and I reintroduced myself.

I'm not sure he remembered me, but he recalled the high-speed rail initiative and talked about our nation's need to get on with serious projects. He said, "You folks have a good project and you shouldn't let it drop simply because of our present-day circumstances." LaHood had the long view. His considerable brow did not flinch and his eyes were piercing as he went on to discuss how we are falling behind other countries in developing and maintaining our infrastructure.

It's comforting to know that LaHood has lost none of his enthusiasm for improving those elements so important to our future. His determination was not simply a reflection of his temporarily assigned duties and responsibilities as secretary of transportation – it was more than that. At the same time, it's more than a little troubling – and I'm sure it is deeply troubling to LaHood as well – that we have made so little progress in recent years. Other matters keep taking precedence. But it won't go on like this forever. Someday soon something major will fail (again) – God forbid, a bridge or tunnel – and those who have the power to respond will be forced to take action. The question is, will it be a dedicated and determined action like the Interstate Highway System or the space program, or will it simply be a patch to get us past the next election? Hopefully, those in office at that time will take the long view.

The condition of our infrastructure is a multi-trillion-dollar problem. Some might say that means it is a next-to-impossible problem – the money just isn't there. And it must never be forgotten that costs tend to fall most heavily on those with the least financial resources. It simply can't be financed through increased taxes. Cohort 3 of the City Accelerator is dedicated to finding new and creative ways to utilize innovative public and private relationships to help move the needle on these seemingly intractable problems.

We are rapidly succumbing to rust and decay. Failure is not an option when it comes to addressing our infrastructure challenges. Unless we are comfortable and complacent, satisfied with defeat and resigned to the fact that our best days are behind us, it is a problem that must be solved.

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.