Infrastructure Grade: D. Conservative Grade: F.

Isaiah J. Poole

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ preliminary release today of its 2009 Report Card on Infrastructure lays bare the toll conservative ideology has taken on our transportation system, public facilities, water network and power grid.

The ASCE gives the nation a collective grade of D in all of these areas. But when the grades issued today are compared to the group’s 2001 and 2005 reports, it is clear that in critical areas conservative stewardship of these resources have made things worse, and in no area has it made things significantly better.

Conservatives, therefore, get an F on their infrastructure stewardship.

Conservative leaders failed to make infrastructure investment a priority, refused to accept a federal leadership role in maintaining infrastructure, assumed the public was unwilling to pay a reasonable amount to cover the cost rather than educating the public and working to gain its confidence, and made what turned out to be bad bets that the private sector would step up to the plate and make up for public neglect.

Six infrastructure areas received lower grades from the ASCE than they received in 2001: drinking water, hazardous waste, navigable waterways, roads, public transportation and wastewater treatment. Five of these areas were already at either D or D+, with public transit getting a C-. Today, four of those six areas are at D-.

Two areas that received declining grades in both the 2005 and 2009 report cards, roads and public transportation, demonstrate the consequences of the Bush administration and the Republican Congress placing ideology above common sense.

In 2003, a bipartisan group of members of Congress, including some conservatives, threw their support behind a five-cent increase in the federal gasoline tax to be invested in upgrading the nation’s transportation network. The right-wing noise machine (such as in this Heritage Foundation screed) went into overdrive: Beleaguered motorists shouldn’t be asked to pay a higher price for gasoline. In fact, some argued for getting the federal government out of highways and public transportation funding altogether, leaving states and local governments to grapple with how to finance roads and transit in their jurisdiction. Others on the right argued that interstate highways and transit systems should be turned into private enterprises that could charge whatever tolls or fares the market could bear. (And, presumably, if the privatized interstate highway in your state or the public transit system that takes you to and from work goes belly up, there’s no federal bailout.)

While conservatives killed a gasoline tax increase they argued Americans couldn’t stomach, Americans ended up spending $78.2 billion a year, or $710 per motorist, because of time lost due to road congestion, plus another $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs because of poorly maintained roads, according to the ASCE. Public transportation use, meanwhile, has increased 25 percent between 1995 and 2005—note that this doesn’t count the upsurge in public transit use during last year’s oil-price spike—but there remains a $6 billion gap between federal capital outlays for public transportation systems and what those systems need just to maintain the equipment they have, must less expand to accommodate increased usage.

Yet even as a bipartisan chorus earlier this month said that we need remedies such as a gas tax increase to address these issues, outgoing Bush transportation secretary Mary Peters continued to push for “sole reliance on tolls and private investment, which Peters said would avoid sending millions of dollars of new tax revenue to Washington that could end up as congressional pork.”

It’s the old conservative strategy of fear of government; better to fold your arms and claim “government is the problem” than figure out how to best use government to solve problems. We could work together to fix the mistakes of past government infrastructure spending efforts—we could increase transparency and de-politicize spending decisions, for example—but conservative leaders can’t shake their disdain for government, even as they turn their backs on what their disdain is costing us, as individuals and as a country.

The ASCE released their report card today even though the findings on which their grades are based won’t be released until March, so that the public will get a clear sense of what is at stake in this week’s congressional debate over the economic recovery package. House Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor, meanwhile, are on Townhall.com today reflexively arguing against government spending and claiming—in spite of the clear evidence of the past eight years—that tax cuts should be our first-line weapon to repairing the economy.

As our investments in all types of infrastructure have fallen behind the rate of inflation—the gap between spending and need has grown to $2.2 trillion over five years—we’ve in effect have had a “tax cut” of sorts. It has been costly and counterproductive. As Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said during a news conference today, this is a clear case of “pay me now or pay me later.”

The idea that we can neglect our way to a 21st-century infrastructure never should have been given the light of day. Those who propose continuing in the same direction need to stand aside; it’s time for big, bold and progressive thinking to be given a chance to succeed where conservative ideology has so spectacularly failed.

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