Govs Turn to Fixing Infrastructure

 

PHILADELPHIA - Improving the nation's crumbling bridges, roads and sewage systems is a $1.6 trillion problem that governors intend to address in the next year.

"It's not the sexiest of issues, but in many ways, it's as important as anything we do," Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) said July 14, as he accepted the chairmanship of the National Governors Association and formally kicked off his infrastructure initiative.

Rendell said million-dollar projects like the infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska make voters skeptical that the government is up to the task. "The view is that infrastructure is just a pork-barrel process … We need to bring back public confidence."

Some 70 current and former governors attended NGA's centennial that celebrated governors' role in crafting important national policies and programs in the last 100 years, such as welfare reform and the interstate highway system.

Rendell said when President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House more than 45 years ago, 11.5 percent of nonmilitary federal spending went for infrastructure, compared with less than 2.5 percent today. He said other developed countries spend far more public money on infrastructure than the U.S. and have high-speed transit systems that American motorists, who are paying $4 for a gallon of gas, would likely use.

But with scarce federal dollars, many voters object to some of the ideas. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for roughly 45 percent of the nation's road and bridge building, is expected to run out of money as early as next year, falling $3.3 billion short of needed transportation funding. The fund is paid for by the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, which was last raised in 1993.

Rendell said NGA will explore different approaches to pay for the badly needed repairs, not to mention new projects. These alternatives include adding new tolls on roads and partnering with private companies to take over state turnpikes.

Rendell knows first-hand the resistance to such innovations. His proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private conglomerate for $12.6 billion over 75 years has met resistance in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The Legislature is expected to take up the measure this fall.

"The public understands the need to repair our roads and bridges," Rendell told Stateline.org at the NGA conference. "We need to educate the public that we can't do that for free."

This is not Rendell's first foray into the issue of improving infrastructure. Earlier this year, he kicked off the Building America's Future" campaign with Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The coalition plans to work with the presidential candidates and the platform committees of the national political parties "to ensure that the next president understands the enormity of the infrastructure crisis, is committed to increasing federal funding, and that both party platforms reflect these commitments."

New attention was focused on whether the country's infrastructure is sound after a Minneapolis bridge collapsed last August, killing 13 motorists. But problems have been mounting nationwide for years. More than one in four of America's nearly 600,000 bridges are rated deficient, a third of major roadways are rated in substandard condition and may be contributing to traffic fatalities, 3,346 dams could fail and aging sewer systems are spilling an estimated 1.26 trillion gallons of untreated sewage every year.

Rendell noted that the governors "almost spoke in one voice" in February that pouring millions of dollars into infrastructure projects is "the best way to get our economy juiced." During the governors' winter meeting in Washington, D.C., governors were divided over whether to push Congress to include transportation money in a second economic stimulus package.

It's too early to tell if Rendell's initiative will be as divisive as the ambitious energy plan of outgoing NGA Chairman and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R). Governors of both parties from energy-producing states scuttled Pawlenty's efforts plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

While governors broadly agree that the country needs to rely less on foreign oil and develop more renewable energy sources, the costs of regulating greenhouse gases are a major concern of states that produce oil and coal, which emit these gases when burned.

Instead,NGA agreed to send a letter to Congress under Pawlenty's initiative asking for at least a five-year extension to tax breaks that encourage the use of more wind and solar power and energy-efficient buildings. But the governors were too far apart on whether to tackle global warming.

The upcoming year will be a busy one for NGA. In addition to Rendell's new agenda, several laws important to states are up for renewal in 2009, including measures for higher education and transportation, President Bush's No Child Left Behind education measure and the Real ID law, designed to make driver's licenses more secure. During a July 13 private lunch, the governors discussed several options for dealing with Real ID that will require states to verify the identities of all 245 million drivers, including an outright repeal.

"Governors have an important role to play in these discussions," Pawlenty said.

 
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