Build, Baby, Build: An Opportunity For Unity

Bill Scher

A safe prediction: Compared with the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration is going to invest more public dollars in rebuilding and modernizing American infrastructure.

There will certainly be debate over how much investment by our government is needed . The new Institute for America’s Future report, “The Investment Deficit in America: Yesterday’s Achievements, Today’s Problems, Tomorrow’s Solutions,” (PDF file) concludes the amount of investment needed to restore our infrastructure far outweighs what President-Elect Barack Obama proposed during the presidential campaign.

But there will be little serious debate over whether we need public investment. Knee-jerk conservatives will try, but after eight years of conservative policies driving our economy into the ditch, the days of using “government” as a slur is over. (Case in point: Conservatives can’t stop making the laughable and easily debunked claim that FDR’s New Deal deepened the Depression. Not working, guys, at all.)

Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Dresser sees the future as well:

By the end of next year Americans will likely be sick and tired of hearing the word “infrastructure.”

Rebuilding of the nation’s highways, mass transit systems and power grids hardly cracked the top hundred issues during the 2008 presidential campaign. But all along, through primary season and the general election, President-elect Barack Obama was a cheerleader for stimulating the economy by spending on tangible public works projects.

You don’t need a Ouija board to discern that “infrastructure” is going to be the political buzzword of 2009. All the forces are aligned for a renewed enthusiasm for spending on roads, bridges, transit lines and other projects that will keep yielding benefits for decades to come. Don’t count on any more stimulus checks subsidizing purchases of imported flat-screen TVs.

One way or another, the mantra of the new administration is likely to be a twist on the chant heard at the Republican National Convention:

Build, baby, build.

If you read our new report, and check out our new Invest in America webpage, the case for increased infrastructure investment is indisputable:

* America has only been spending half of what we used to spend on long-range investments (as a percentage of GDP), while China spends twice what we do.

* Travel on America’s roads increased 41 percent since 1990 while miles of road only increased 4 percent, leading to more congestion, wasted time and gas, increased injury and death and an annual loss of $230 billion.

* Europeans can zip from Paris to Frankfurt in four hours on high-speed rail, relieving much road congestion, while American freight trains suffer multi-day delays at a notorious choke point in Chicago.

* Our creaky electrical grid uses century-old technology over 50-year old power lines, when we could have a energy-efficient, reliable “smart grid” that connects rural wind farms and coastal solar power to urban centers, and allows consumers to sell back power to the grid.

* The United States government helped create the Internet, but now we rank 15th of 30 developed countries in overall broadband penetration.

* Six times as many women with children are in the workforce today compared to 1950, but day-care facilities are understaffed and lack strong educational requirements.

* Deficiencies in one-third of our school facilities interfere with the ability to teach.

* In the last two decades, more than a dozen steam pipes have exploded in New York City.

* More than 1 out of 10 American bridges are “structurally deficient.”

* More than 150 levees are at high risk of failing due to poor maintenance.

* 2006 was the worst year in American history for sinkholes. Sinkholes!

But there’s one other thing about the report that really struck me.

When we think public works projects, FDR and the New Deal first come to mind. But the biggest public works projects in our history were led by Republicans.

It was President Abraham Lincoln that connected East to West with the passage of the Pacific Railway Act and the authorization of the transcontinental railroad.

And it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who spearheaded the largest public works program in our history, the half-trillion dollar interstate highway system — at a time when the annual federal budget was a mere $78 billion.

The need to maintain, upgrade and reform our infrastructure is a public need that historically knows no party.

Conservatism has taken a massive blow in credibility after the last eight years, and Republican politicians are struggling to grapple with it. To get some credibility back, they should strongly consider joining the Obama administration in a “Build, Baby, Build” chant.

I would not suggest that Republicans need to become Democrats in order win elections in the future, as Democratic attempts to sound like Republicans often failed as well. There is always a need for contrasts, for debate, for opposing philosophies to push different ideas.

And sometimes calls for unity are cynical attempts to strong-arm. There was an appropriate call for unity around a military response to Al Qaeda when we were hit, which Americans across the ideological spectrum heeded. But calls for unity around exploiting 9/11 for an attack on Iraq deserved far more pushback than it got.

But there are actual times for unity, and when those moments are missed, it can be searing for one’s credibility.

I am sure Obama can get public investment legislation through Congress and avoid a filibuster. Only a few moderate Republican senators from states that Obama won handily would have to cooperate.

But the bulk of the party will likely have to ask itself:

Do we Republicans want to be on record opposing legislation that will rebuild America for the 21st Century? Can’t we acknowledge that there some things only government can do without shedding our overall conservative beliefs?

Or do we want our conservative spawn to be carping 75 years from now that public investment didn’t create a clean energy economy, didn’t establish high-speed rail, didn’t renew our schools, and didn’t lift our economy out of the ditch?

You can look at the New Deal haters today, see how ridiculous they look and glimpse your future, should you turn away from this moment of opportunity for national unity.

The choice is yours.

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