Zazzle Shop

Screen printing

Monday, October 20, 2008

Modern Day WPA will save the Economy


Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have been all but silent when it comes to repairing America's failing infrastructure, and with all that's going on in the world right now, they might be forgiven for it. They shouldn't be. Investing heavily in our infrastructure is just the thing for reinvigorating our tanking economy.

The candidates can talk all they want about shoveling money into alternative fuels, electric cars and high-speed rail, but none of that will mean much if our roads, bridges and rails can't support them. The next president must commit to fixing our infrastructure. Such an investment will create jobs, strengthen our economy and make America more competitive.

"(Congress) should invest in the more than 3,000 ready-to-go highway projects that could be under contract within the next 30 to 90 days," says John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "Funding these ready to go projects offers Congress a tremendous opportunity to put Americans to work and help cash-strapped states repair and replace our crumbling infrastructure."

History shows us the time to act is now.

The state of America's infrastructure -- roads, bridges, drinking water, even schools and transit systems -- couldn't be much worse. A report card issued three years ago by the American Society of Civil Engineers gives it all a D. The society says we've got to spend about $1.6 trillion just to bring things up to a B-.

"We're issuing a new report card next March, and we don't anticipate the grades getting any better," David Mongan, the organization's president, says. "If you look at federal and state infrastructure spending, it hasn't increased. The best we can hope for is that we've held steady since our last report."

Is it really that bad? Yes, it is. One of every four bridges in the country is either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, and bringing them up to snuff will cost $140 billion, according to the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials. America's drinking water infrastructure is woefully underfunded; the Congressional Budget Office says we must invest at least $11.6 billion over the next 20 years. Highway congestion costs us $78 billion annually through the 4.2 billion hours and 2.9 billion gallons of gasoline we waste each year, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. The list goes on.

Of the two candidates, Obama's said the most about the issue, but even he isn't saying much. At the bottom of the sixth page of his economic policy paper (.pdf), Obama calls for the creation of a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank. It would "expand and enhance, not supplant, existing federal transportation investments." On the face of it, that means a new chunk of money would be allocated for infrastructure projects as opposed to simply shifting cash from other projects. Obama wants to deposit $60 billion into the bank over five years. That's far short of the $225 billion a bipartisan transportation policy commission recommends spending each year for the next 50 years, but it's a start. If Obama's numbers are to be trusted, the bank would create two million jobs and generate $35 billion in economic activity each year.

As for McCain, he hasn't said much of anything. If anyone's seen a specific infrastructure platform from him, we'd like to see it. That said, his record so far isn't stellar. Among other things, he's called for a national gas tax holiday, which would save people pennies at the pump but take money away from the already strained Highway Trust Fund, which finances construction projects. Three years ago, McCain voted against the Transportation Equity Act, which provided more than $286 billion for transportation infrastructure.

Clearly America needs to invest quickly and heavily in its failing infrastructure, and, ironically, now may well be the perfect time to do so. The spiraling economy has drawn comparisons to the Great Depression. While that may be extreme, there's no doubt we're in for tough times. A national infrastructure initiative could make things a little easier.

During the Depression, President Roosevelt poured $11.4 billion (about $175 billion in 2008 dollars, by our estimate) into the Works Progress Administration. The agency spent nearly $4 billion on highway and road projects and more than $2 billion on public buildings and utilities. All told, the WPA put 8.5 million people to work between 1935 and 1943. Together those people built 651,087 miles of roadway, built or improved 124,031 bridges, erected 125,110 public buildings and laid 853 airport runways. Not bad at a time when the unemployment approached 25 percent.

Beyond providing jobs -- analysts say every $1 billion spent on transportation projects creates 35,000 jobs -- a modern-day WPA would produce lasting benefits. "China is spending 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, and we're spending something like one or two percent," says Allen D. Biehler, Pennsylvania's transportation secretary. "A sustained investment would not only create jobs that have a strong multiplier effect on the larger economy, but would prevent us from falling behind other nations."

A country that's gridlocked, crumbling, and collapsing isn't going to serve us well. Spend the money now, enjoy the benefits later.