The Renewing America initiative is publishing today the first of what will be an ongoing series, the Renewing America Progress Report and accompanying Infographic Scorecard. The series is intended to highlight – in both a visually compelling fashion and in a more detailed narrative – the challenges the United States faces in rebuilding the foundations of its economic strength, and some of the initiatives that show the greatest promise.
Our first installment, “Road to Nowhere,” says it all in the title. Transportation infrastructure is one of the pillars of a modern competitive economy. It allows people to travel to and from work easily every day. It permits goods to move quickly from U.S. factories to international markets, or from coastal ports to American retail shops, boosting productivity. It lets us hop in the car, or on a train or plane to escape for the weekend or a longer holiday, improving our quality of life and making the United States a more attractive place to live.
Americans understood this once upon a time, building the most impressive network of roads and airports in the world, as well as a solid freight rail system. But for far too long we have been living on that inheritance. Two data points from the Scorecard stand out:
- Since 1980, the number of highway miles traveled by American drivers has doubled, but the miles of road on which they’re driving have increased just 5 percent. It’s no mystery, as the report notes, why traffic congestion takes more than $700 out of the pocket of the average commuter each year.
- Two-thirds of Americans say that fully funding transportation infrastructure is either “extremely important” or “very important” to them. Yet solid majorities are opposed to any of the usual ways of funding new roads, including higher gas taxes or new tolls.
It would be easy to point a finger at Congress, and we certainly do in the report. Reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, usually known as the highway bill, has always been contentious, but nevertheless it used to win approval routinely. But the last multi-year bill expired in 2009 and has been replaced by a series of short-term extensions that make rational construction planning all but impossible for state and local governments. The bill expires again June 30th, and congressional leaders again look unlikely to reach agreement and are predicting another short-term extension. It will be the 10th; as a Miami Herald editorial put it recently, this marks “a new low in congressional irresponsibility.”
But congressional inaction in many ways reflects public ambivalence. Americans want uncluttered highways, efficient airports, and seamless mass transit systems, but they are either reluctant to pay for these things or doubt the ability of governments to deliver. The overdue backlash against pork barrel politics for favored projects, for instance, seems to have hardened into a deeper public cynicism about the ability of government to deliver any needed public works. Even proposals like using a federal seed money to create a National Infrastructure Bank that would funnel private investor (not taxpayer) money into new projects have been unable to get through Congress.
There are encouraging signs from some state and local governments. Chicago is launching a $7 billion Infrastructure Trust that will rely primarily on private investor capital to finance city projects. New York state has created a new state infrastructure bank intended to leverage $15 billion in investments into state projects. But most big projects, and all interstate projects, require some active federal role, and that is still missing.
One of the more tragic aspects of the federal gridlock over infrastructure is that the United States is missing a golden opportunity that the rest of the world is handing us, and one that probably won’t last for long. The turmoil in Europe and the lack of developed capital markets in the rest of the world have led investors to continue buying up U.S. Treasuries at record low interest rates that are not even keeping pace with inflation. They are paying the U.S. government, in other words, to hold their money. And they are doing so despite big U.S. budget deficits that in more normal times would drive interest rates higher.
The United States should use some of that free money -- along with the plentiful private capital that is searching for stable returns -- to invest in projects that promise long-term payoffs in improved productivity that will strengthen the U.S. economy, as well as provide a much-needed short-term boost in employment. As the Progress Report and Scorecard clearly demonstrate, the United States has a lot of catching up to do. Now is the time to start.