Infrastructure as Campaign Theme? Perhaps

DENVERDiscussion of infrastructure in national presidential campaigns is usually extremely limited, as the decidedly un-sexy topics like highway funding and new tunnels tend not to energize the public as does, say, a war or a controversial social issue.

Things haven’t been much different this election, at least not yet, but there are at least a few reasons to think under-funded infrastructure might enter the debate in a more pronounced role, at least if one listens to some of the infrastructure geeks we heard at a roundtable on the topic on Monday, hosted by the Rocky Mountain Institute.

The funding needs nationwide for highways, roads, rails, ports, etc. have very much added up over the decades, and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell yesterday cited figures saying that $1.6 trillion was needed to bring the country’s infrastructure into good repair.

Accordingly, Mr. Rendell and other governors and mayors (including Mayor Bloomberg) have mounted an organized push to lobby for more federal dollars and a better national strategy to fund infrastructure, Building America’s Future. "I don’t want to accept the premise that there isn’t funding to do what I think is one of the two or three most important national priorities," Mr. Rendell said.

It tends to be the cities and the states that push the hardest for more federal funding, as, understandably, they don’t want (or are unable) to pony up the billions needed for large, regional projects.

"I think there’s a moment. I think we are in a different place than we have been in the last several years over the issue of infrastructure," said Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee. "Our Democratic platform makes reference to it. Barack Obama is talking about a reinvestment infrastructure bank. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi convened a number of meetings, and within these meetings talked about how we plan to have a national infrastructure policy."

There’s forces adding urgency to the infrastructure push: passenger rail is at or near capacity in much of the entire Northeast corridor, a condition exacerbated as high fuel prices push more people onto trains. And the gas tax (a flat-rate 18.4 cents per gallon) that funds highways and transit projects is taking in substantially less revenue as Americans cut back on their driving.

Mr. Obama supports a national federal infrastructure bank, where money would theoretically be divvied out in a methodical manner, as opposed to the earmark/pork-heavy process that characterizes many federally funded projects.

Mr. McCain is more silent on the issue, at least on his Web site, but last year’s Minneapolis bridge collapse–which has become a national symbol for crumbling infrastructure–is sure to be an issue when the Republican National Convention begins across the river in St. Paul.

As for why transportation and other infrastructure rarely get national attention, New York City’s Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, said at Monday’s forum that the approach was too piecemeal, never offering a national vision with which the public can connect.

The country doesn’t have "any kind of vision that would make people want to pay a higher gas tax," she said. "’What do I get–do I get a whole high-speed grid, rail network across the country? Do I get everything connected?’ What really is that moon shot in transportation that really gets everybody all excited?"

Infrastructure as Campaign Theme? Perhaps