Obama’s Infrastructure Investment Proposal – Good Vision, But Where’s the Money?
Since President Obama introduced his new — and massive — infrastructure investment proposal last month, the initiative has been making headlines nationwide.Though we welcome his attention to the issue, it’s difficult not to wonder: Why now and why wasn’t this more of a priority in the stimulus package?
Though there are many strong opinions about his choice of timing, it’s more important to focus on what we know right now. And what we know is that the President wants an up-front investment of $50 billion to expand and repair the nation’s highways, railways and airport runways, and to install a next generation air transportation system, among other projects — all of which would create jobs and reduce the unemployment rate.
The administration’s proposed Infrastructure Bank is central to the initiative and would allow the government to pool federal funds and private capital together to underwrite large projects that are prioritized by national and regional importance. As a result, projects like the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska will compete for funding with more pressing issues like freight bottlenecks, bridges that won’t support increased loads, and stretches of highway that need additional lanes to meet increased demand.
Those projects are particularly important because it is impossible to separate economic growth from the growth of transport. Those of us in the trucking industry saw a big decrease in miles traveled and demand for our services during the economic downturn. We’ll see it increase again as the economy rebounds. As a result, any federal policy that strives to restrict VMTs (vehicle miles traveled) or shift traffic to other modes to avoid investing in the road system is not only impractical, but irresponsible. Like it or not, eighty percent of the communities in this country are only served by truck. And while rail intermodal is an important part of our surface transportation system, even if rail intermodal capacity is doubled, it would remove fewer than two percent of trucks off the road, and next to none of them in urban or congested areas.
At the end of the day, the Infrastructure Bank, tolls, taxes, and user fees are all euphemisms for collecting money. These funds will come from all of us. So, again, while we appreciate that President Obama is focusing on transportation infrastructure, his proposal won’t move forward until the key issue of where the funds will come from is resolved. To quote Tom Cruise’s famous line from the movie Jerry McGuire: Show me the money. Especially after this week’s election results, a transportation plan that makes big promises without a way to pay for them is wishful thinking at best.