Orders of Magnitude

I had the privilege Tuesday morning of attending a hearing by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on the issue of America’s decaying infrastructure. It was an important hearing and everyone said the right things.

If that sounds encouraging, keep the good mood for a moment. Soon you’ll get to the “but.”

The people at the hearing all understood the problem. America is falling apart. Representatives and experts talked about our congested highways and collapsing bridges. They talked about bursting steam pipes and overflowing sewerage. They cited the American Society of Architects and Engineers’ conclusion that $1.6 trillion is needed to bring the nation’s infrastructure to “good” condition. That’s just “good,” not excellent. They noted that our competitors in Asia spend five times as much on infrastructure as the U.S. as a percent of gross domestic product.

Most speakers credited historical America with great achievements – transcontinental railways, the interstate highway system, the Erie Canal – and they recognized the role that government played in those accomplishments. Our U.S. government recognized the need, provided the funding and organized the construction.

The ranking Republican, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., recognized needs in excess of a trillion dollars. He went out of his way to praise conservative president Dwight Eisenhower, who proposed the interstate highway system in 1954 – conceiving a half-trillion dollar project at a time when the entire federal budget was $78 billion. He lamented that today’s conservatives aren’t equal to a challenge of that magnitude.

Not only did they see the magnitude of the problem, they spoke creatively about solutions. Proposals on the table ranged from public-private infrastructure banks to a National Development Infrastructure Corporation. Proposals were diverse and well-constructed.

Now the “but.” Having recognized the scale of the problem, the solutions barely nibbled around the edges. Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a main mover, has championed a bill that proposes $9 billion over three years, or $3 billion per year. The main bill on the Senate side proposes $60 billion over 10 years, or $6 billion per year.

It’s good news to ante up several billion a year towards this serious problem, but get real. The same speakers outlined a $1.6 trillion problem. The solutions are off by orders of magnitude. Where’s the rest of the money going to come from? That’s the $1.59 trillion dollar question.

Our leaders are afraid of deficits. They are afraid of taxes, and under the thrall of paying as they go.

They need to let that go before we can solve these problems. These are long-term investments. They require long-term financing and long-term vision.

Real people pay as they go for household expenses like food and clothing. They borrow for investments like houses, cars and college. Responsible people do it, and so can responsible government. Smart investments pay back over time.

Tuesday’s hearing provided an important service by outlining the problem and starting to look for solutions. But it’s only a first step. More is needed. By the speakers’ own estimates, $1.59 trillion more steps are needed.

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