Our Friend, the Feds

It could be a mixed blessing if federal funding for infrastructure goes on the upswing again.
August 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to "establish Post Offices and post Roads," which shows that federal involvement with communication and transportation is as old as the country itself. Older, actually. Historian Robert Fishman notes that some of the ideas in the Constitution grew out of difficulties Maryland and Virginia were having in designing a canal. There was a realization that stronger federal powers might be needed to make it happen.

Despite this legacy, federal involvement in transportation has been on-again, off-again over the centuries, lurching between heavy hands and hands-off. In recent decades, federal involvement has consisted more and more of the infamous "earmarks," where grants for, say, bridges, are given on the basis of the sway of individual legislators.

But after the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis last August, which killed 13 people, you can feel the change in the political weather. There have been growing calls for more federal involvement in the care and feeding of infrastructure.

It's become part of the presidential campaigns. Speaking before the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami in June, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to "unlock the potential of all our regions by connecting them with a 21st-century infrastructure." He took note of the nation's "crumbling roads and bridges, the aging water and sewer pipes, the faltering electrical grids that cost us billions in blackouts, repairs and travel delays." He went on to talk about investing in "a world-class transit system," and in our ports, roads and high-speed rails.

Obama was picking up on the themes laid down by others. Just 10 days before Obama's speech, the Brookings Institution held a conference that looked at using metropolitan areas for renewed federal infrastructure investment. And in May, America 2050, a project of the Regional Plan Association in New York -- full disclosure, I'm a senior fellow there -- held a conference, "Rebuilding and Renewing America: Toward a 21st Century Infrastructure Investment Plan," that showed the historic legacy of national transportation planning.

Meanwhile, several members of Congress have been involved. Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat who hails from Oregon, has introduced a bill to establish a "Commission on Rebuilding America for the 21st Century" that calls for a renewed federal role in infrastructure development. In the Senate, Republican Chuck Hagel and Democrat Chris Dodd are calling for a National Infrastructure Bank. Such a bank would consist of a board, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, to evaluate large infrastructure projects and issue debt to pay for them.

By contrast, Republican presidential candidate John McCain has made a point of seeking to cut pork from transportation spending. He has not called for a stronger federal role, and that fits his general emphasis on a more limited role for the federal government. For better or worse, there is a clear difference between the candidates on this issue.

Whichever way the election goes, state and local officials are probably taking comfort in all this talk of federal investment in transportation infrastructure. More federal help means more federal money, right? But a degree of caution is advised. Good transportation policy requires subtlety, and the federal government is not always known for that. For instance, 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 -- companies that had gotten financial help from local tax dollars. In the early 20th century, the federal Bureau of Public Roads did a good job building the enormous secondary road system. But with the design and approval of the U.S. Interstate system in the 1950s, the feds' massive investment in a single mode of transportation helped sink passenger and freight rail service, and spawned automobile sprawl across a nation.

In more recent times, the feds have done some things well. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan backed a re-structuring of federal highway spending in the 1990s that helped bolster metropolitan regions, mass transit and even sidewalks. But that vision has been breaking down in the past decade under the pressure of earmarks and other factors.

Conceptually, it certainly makes sense to have the federal government play a large part in transportation across state lines. But let us hope that the federal government can do things right. Be careful what you wish for.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist | alex@rpa.org