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Christian Science Monitor: Five Infrastructure Challenges

Author: Mark Trumbull
September, 2011

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Republican presidential candidate Gary Johnson scored a rhetorical win in Thursday's Republican debate by saying that his neighbor's dogs "have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration." But President Obama's latest jobs plan includes a call for more spending on roads and bridges, an idea that has at least some Republican support. Here's a look at the debate over infrastructure and the economy.

1. How bad off is American infrastructure?

Both Republicans and Democrats agree the nation has some big needs when it comes to repair and expansion of highways, ports, and airports, which serve as a foundation for economic growth.

They differ on how much to spend and on the specific priorities. And, as former New Mexico Governor Johnson implied in his joke, the parties differ on whether federal construction spending can give a big boost to job creation.

The White House emphasis on investing in "shovel-ready projects" dates back to the 2009 Recovery Act. And conservatives have been expressing skepticism ever since. (Johnson isn't the first to use references to canine cleanup).

But whatever the impact on overall US employment, the backlog of work for backhoes and mixer trucks is significant.

The American Society of Civil Engineers puts it in stark terms: It gives the US a grade of 'D' on overall infrastructure.

The bipartisan group Building America's Future says the United States should be spending at least $200 billion per year on the problem – an estimate focused mainly on transportation needs. That would require a sizable spending boost, and other analysts have come up with similar targets.

"For every dollar we're investing, we should be investing three," says Robert Atkinson, who heads the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington research group focused on economic growth.

The US is spending just 2 percent of gross domestic product on infrastructure, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California said recently, citing a US Treasury report. "That is a 50 percent decline from 1960." By comparison, Canada is spending 4 percent of its GDP on transportation infrastructure, and China is spending 9 percent.

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