Bridges to Somewhere

By Thomas J. Donohue
Monday, October 8, 2007

You'd be hard-pressed to convince the American people that we don't need to spend more on infrastructure after the tragic collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis in August. Signs of decay are everywhere, from crumbling bridges to pothole-ridden streets to exploding manhole covers and underground steam pipes.

Yet Transportation Secretary Mary Peters is making precisely that argument. She has said that we could meet all of our transportation infrastructure needs if we spent current funds more wisely. She is only half right. Spending money wisely is important, but it's not nearly enough.

There are three things we must do to ensure that our nation has a superior physical platform capable of serving a growing economy: stop diverting dedicated transportation funds to wasteful or unrelated projects; unleash private infrastructure investment by removing regulatory impediments; and invest more federal, state and local dollars in infrastructure.

Taxpayers would be outraged to learn how much of the money they pay in user fees for roads, the aviation system and other transportation systems is diverted to "bridges to nowhere" or non-infrastructure projects such as childhood obesity programs and rainforest museums in Iowa.

The current five-year, $286 billion highway bill sets aside 20 percent of all funds for earmarks. The number of these earmarks has ballooned from 101 in 1981 to 6,371 in 2005. Politicians should be penalized when they skim money from dedicated transportation funds to finance projects of their choosing. It breaks trust with the taxpayers.

If Congress insists on earmarking infrastructure funds, it should at least require that the earmarks go toward core infrastructure needs, not unrelated pet projects. It should also refuse to give states carte blanche to use federal bridge money as they please. California diverted $350 million from its bridge program last year alone, according to the Federal Highway Administration; Pennsylvania, about $130 million.

Congress must also work with the states to ensure that infrastructure funding goes to the highest-priority projects yielding the greatest economic and safety benefits to the nation. There is no mechanism in place to do this now.

Yet even if we spent every dime of infrastructure funding on its intended purpose, and we should, we still wouldn't have enough to bring our system up to par, much less to expand it. Peters is simply wrong to suggest otherwise.

The widely respected American Society of Civil Engineers says we will need to spend $1.6 trillion over the next five years to bring our infrastructure systems -- roads, bridges, aviation, energy, ports, inland waterways and other facilities -- to good condition. That's $320 billion a year. For surface transportation infrastructure alone, we're spending just $57 billion a year of the $94 billion that's needed. We're falling far short and in every category -- roads, rail, transit, aviation.

What must our nation do to meet the urgent infrastructure funding challenges? Where is the money going to come from?

We can start by unlocking potentially hundreds of billions of dollars in private investment just waiting to be spent on power plants; pipelines; shipping and hauling routes to railroads and airports; privately constructed and operated roadways; and more. The money is there if government regulators would get out of the way. Countries around the world use an array of innovative financing approaches and public-private partnerships to bring key projects on line quickly. It's about time America did the same.

There must also be a significant increase in government funding for infrastructure, which means we will have to consider an increase in the federal gasoline user fee. This could mean a straightforward increase in a fee that hasn't been raised in 14 years, or it may be in the form of a carbon fee designed to address global warming. Either would work as long as the proceeds are dedicated to transportation and other infrastructure.

What will we get for these investments? We will save lives, create American jobs and set the foundation for a more robust, productive, globally competitive economy.

In August, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched "Let's Rebuild America," a multimillion-dollar initiative to increase public support for meeting our infrastructure needs. If we can't get policymakers to see the light, we'll make them feel the heat.

We are a growing country. It's time we understood that if we want a new road, new runway or new transit system, we've got to buy it. No one is giving them away.

Thomas J. Donohue is president and chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the world's largest business federation.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company