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Build This: A Real Infrastructure Policy for America

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Imagine boarding a sleek new bullet train and rocketing from Washington, D.C. to Richmond, VA in under an hour. Imagine creating thousands of durable new blue-collar jobs to build and maintain railways, construct and fine-tune railcars, and help design the electrical grid that would support high-speed rail. Imagine a new architecture for concentrating development around sophisticated new urban centers -- and a hungry new customer for clean energy.

Imagining high-speed rail in the U.S. has often just been the province of dreams. The idea has been bedeviled by various lobbying groups hostile to sustainable transportation, beset by internecine warfare between different states and federal agencies, and bereft of a long-term infrastructure policy. As one grizzled and skeptical railway executive told me at a conference held last week by the new U.S. High Speed Rail Association at the H.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C., "I attended my first high-speed rail conference thirty years ago."

But these dreams are about to leave the ether and descend to earth, in the form of concrete, steel, and electrical lines, as the U.S., thanks to the Obama administration, prepares to invest $8 billion in actually building high-speed rail. On the heels of the administration's announcement of $3.4 billion in grants to drive the creation of a "smart grid" in the country, the time is right to think about an infrastructure policy not just for next year but the next generation.

The U.S. High Speed Rail Association is a broad coalition of domestic and international partners working to drive American investment in high-speed rail. There's good reason to think it's an idea whose time has finally come, after eight years of the George W. Bush administration, during which federal funding for rail was essentially scaled to zero. The challenge will be to ensure that the initial $8 billion is not frittered away in a series of pork-barrel pilot projects, but instead becomes the first investment in the long-term infrastructure strategy the U.S. has been sorely lacking.

The organization estimates that a fully functioning, 17,000-mile, national high-speed rail system would cost at least $600 billion over 30 years. In his panel presentation, Gov. Ed Rendell (D) of Pennsylvania, a long-time advocate of high-speed rail, urged participants to take the long view on such an infrastructure investment. "We need a capital budget run through an infrastructure bank," Rendell urged. "It's the only way to do this." Rendell emphasized that thousands of "tough, blue-collar work" would be created by high-speed rail, citing an estimate by a Pennsylvania steel plant that makes rail ties that its work force would triple if high-speed rail were to become reality.

John Krueger, a staff attorney with the U.S. Public Interest Group who advocates for new federal budget priorities on transportation, argued that grassroots public opinion will ultimately change our infrastructure policies. "Why high-speed rail?" he asked the conference. "It's what the people want....The opposite of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) is PIMBY--Please In My Backyard." Over 220 states and localities have submitted applications for the $8 billion the Obama administration has allocated to high-speed rail. And in the budget request for 2010, the House of Representatives approved an additional $4 billion of high-speed rail funding, surpassing an initial administration request of only $1 billion.

Presenting on the second day of the conference, Norm Anderson, who heads the consulting group CG/LA Infrastructure, emphasized a series of gaps in the nation's long-term infrastructure strategy. He highlighted the urgent need for a clear focus on the competitiveness and job creation dimensions of high-speed rail. With competitive nations such as China aggressively investing in high-speed rail, we risk losing our edge in technology, concentrated urban development, low-carbon transportation, and a stable employment base for thousands. Anderson also emphasized the need for a strong funding mechanism -- the national infrastructure bank also advocated by Gov. Rendell -- and a federal entity that would "own and understand" infrastructure, opening it to both competition and public-private partnerships.

Inspired by events such as the U.S. High Speed Rail Association conference and the Obama administration's $8 billion commitment, the Progressive Policy Institute's new E3 Initiative in the coming months will be developing and driving policy proposals on infrastructure and other areas central to rebuilding the nation's economy around clean technology. It's an exciting time -- and we need to ensure that the excitement does not fade into a passing fancy, but rather leads to real steps that revitalize the U.S.'s economic dynamism.

This piece is cross-posted on PPI's new blog, the Progressive Fix.