2012 Election: Infrastructure Finally Rears Its Head as an Issue in Campaign’s Final Week

It took a storm of unprecedented proportions for it to happen but Superstorm Sandy, in forcing the shutdown of bridges and tunnels, subways, shipping routes and airports, managed to accomplish what months of campaigning could not: putting infrastructure front and center in the 2012 election (or at least disrupting the regular political dialogue and partisanship momentarily). As we enter the campaign’s final weekend, here are some links to ponder about Sandy, the election and what’s at stake for the future of the nation’s infrastructure.

  • Robert Puentes in The New Republic looks at “The Big Infrastructure Question Posed by Sandy.” Puentes notes that “The degree of reaction to Sandy will depend on a lot of things, not the least of which are ongoing budget challenges in New York City and state, coupled with a federal government rethinking its role in an age of fiscal constraint. But part of the wake-up call from Sandy will be just how important the city’s transportation infrastructure is to its economy—mass transit, tunnels/bridges, airports—and the impact when it’s disabled.”
  • Building America’s Future Educational Fund, the bipartisan coalition founded by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is calling on Washington to respond to Sandy with a long-term plan for the nation’s infrastructure. In letters to President Obama and members of Congress, Rendell writes: “For too long Washington has ignored the warning signs. Inadequacies in the electric grid that left 55 million Americans in the Northeast and the Midwest without electricity for 48 hours in 2003; the destruction of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities due to inadequate levee systems in 2005; the shutdown of public transit systems, airports and freight rail along the East Coast affecting tens of millions and costing even more due to Sandy. These major disasters grab headlines but the continued failure of our infrastructure to keep us safe, to improve the quality of our lives and keep us economically competitive is even more jarring … What Americans don’t need are more band-aid fixes. No more filling the proverbial potholes. What is needed is a long-term strategic infrastructure plan that invests in our roads, bridges, transit systems, ports, water systems, broadband and electric grid.” In an op-ed for Politico this week, BAF President Marcia Hale gets specific, calling for a 10-year infrastructure plan, establishment of a National Infrastructure Bank, and changing the regulatory process to allow greater flexibility and encourage more innovation.
  • MAP-21, the surface transportation authorization bill passed this summer, took effect just in time for states impacted by Sandy to take advantage of newly relaxed environmental requirements in the law that may help them reconstruct roads and bridges faster. As I detailed in my recent Capitol Research brief on “Accelerating Highway Project Delivery Under MAP-21,” highways and bridges damaged in emergencies were included as a categorical exclusion from the requirements related to environmental assessments or environmental impact statements under the National Environmental Policy Act. That particular categorical exclusion was included in the bill largely in reaction to 2011’s Hurricane Irene, which wiped out many roads and bridges in Vermont, leaving some entire towns cut off. Fleet Owner magazine had a piece this week on the lessons state DOTs learned from Vermont’s Irene experience.
  • As I noted in my article last week for the Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter, MAP-21’s hard won (though still inadequate, some would say) transportation funding totals could be in jeopardy as Congress post-election tries to address the fiscal cliff and sequestration cuts scheduled to kick in in the new year. But there is another fiscal cliff looming for transportation not too far down the road as well once MAP-21 expires in 2014, notes longtime Congressional staffer Jack Schenendorf (now with law firm Covington & Burling) in a new report prepared for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers: “Since MAP-21 does not address the long-term financial viability of the Highway Trust Fund, transportation will face its own ‘fiscal cliff’ in the next Congress … The Highway Trust Fund would need an additional $76 billion, over and above existing user fee revenues, just to fund a six-year bill (FY 2015 to FY 2020) at MAP-21 levels. And of course, significantly more than $76 billion in additional revenues would be needed to increase funding for the surface transportation programs over the current MAP-21 levels.” But Schenendorf also writes that recently announced fuel economy standards could mean even those numbers are optimistic, since they’re likely to further erode Highway Trust Fund revenues (gas taxes) beginning later this decade. Moreover, Schenendorf says, if Congress does not engage in fixing the problem well before MAP-21’s expiration, “States and contractors may be reluctant to move forward with certain investments in the face of … looming Highway Trust Fund deficits.”
  • Progressive Railroading had a recent article on what’s at stake in the 2012 election for freight and passenger railroads and transit systems. A number of industry officials were asked to weigh in.
  • MinnPost has an interview this week with former House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, who had critical words for both President Obama and Mitt Romney when it comes to transportation policy.
  • Tanya Synder on Streetsblog Capitol Hill looks at “What Has President Obama Done to Improve American Transportation Policy?” Snyder writes: “Perhaps the best thing President Obama did for transportation policy was to nominate Ray LaHood as U.S. DOT secretary.” She goes on to discuss the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the TIGER program, Recovery Act and high-speed rail, while lamenting the administration’s “unwillingness to engage” with Congress to find a viable transportation revenue stream.