No president has paid serious attention to infrastructure since Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had a vision for the future. His vision led to constructing the U.S. interstate highway system, the roads on which our economy has traveled for five decades. But Eisenhower's vision was for his future. That future is our past.
In Eisenhower's future, gasoline and diesel were widely available and cheap and the environmental consequences of road travel powered by oil were still vague. The U.S. economy would deliver everything by truck, even when other modes made more sense, so the interstate system was ideal. It has worked well for us up to now, but looks to be a poor choice for the future.
So what will the next president do about infrastructure?
Because of other crises, it's not clear that either candidate will do anything in the next four years. Infrastructure isn't sexy, so it will struggle to reach the priority list at all. With two wars (at least) and fiscal meltdown, infrastructure surely won't reach the top of the priority list. Still we need to know if the next president intends in the long term. Infrastructure isn't sexy, but it is critical to economic well-being.
So here are the best guesses on what each candidate is likely to do about infrastructure, based on their public statements and the policy statements on the websites.
If John McCain becomes the next president, he won't do much. Ever. His website and his public statements suggest that he and his staff aren't even sure what infrastructure is. The only time they use the word 'infrastructure' is about extending internet access. Under energy policy, they discuss more efficient cars, but say nothing about the infrastructure on which those cars might move. They say nothing about roads, bridges, ports, rail systems, or anything about transportation infrastructure. They do mention these systems in the context of security, but they offer nothing that suggests that they will repair crumbling bridges, prevent dropped cell phone calls, or encourage rail systems to reduce traffic snarls--to suggest some examples.
Nothing. Zero. It is hard to find other references to issues, policies, or statements about infrastructure. The McCain campaign seems to have given infrastructure no thought.
If Barack Obama becomes the next president, he may do a great deal. His website, his stump speeches, and his policy statements address infrastructure in several places. This passage comes from his statement on the economy and taxes.
New Jobs Through National Infrastructure Investment
Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that it is critically important for the United States to rebuild its national transportation infrastructure -- its highways, bridges, roads, ports, air, and train systems -- to strengthen user safety, bolster our long-term competitiveness and ensure our economy continues to grow.
Create a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will address the infrastructure challenge by creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand and enhance, not supplant, existing federal transportation investments. This independent entity will be directed to invest in our nation's most challenging transportation infrastructure needs. The Bank will receive an infusion of federal money, $60 billion over 10 years, to provide financing to transportation infrastructure projects across the nation. These projects will create up to two million new direct and indirect jobs and stimulate approximately $35 billion per year in new economic activity.
Earlier versions of his website addressed more specific issues, but the first part of this quote summarizes it. Obama at least intends to see that the system is in good repair, the federal equivalent of making sure all the potholes have been filled.
Obama clearly sees infrastructure improvements as part of job creation and part of his economic plan. His website discusses infrastructure in its sections on the economy, urban policy, and energy. As these things go, his statements are fairly specific.
Neither candidate offers a comprehensive vision like the one Eisenhower offered. Based on other statements and his long time record, McCain may believe that 'free markets' will somehow solve the infrastructure problem. But Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, knew that wasn't true. Transportation infrastructure, like national defense, is part of our common ground, and an arena in which government plays a significant role.
Free markets won't work for our crumbling bridges. They won't put in light rail systems to unsnarl urban traffic. They won't install nationwide high speed rail to speed up transcontinental traffic and cut dependence on oil. In each of these cases, the investment is too great for a private firm, and the public has too much of a vested interest in the outcome. That's why we have a Secretary of Transportation, a national transportation policy, and a long record of support transportation infrastructure at the local, state, and federal levels.
We need to fix our crumbling bridges, ideally before they become preferred places for the majority to sleep. Obama seems far more likely to do that than McCain.