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The Infrastructure Mess: Time for Some Small Steps Forward

by Edward Alden
April 11, 2012

Gridlock traffic is pictured on highway 395 (Jason Reed/Reuters). Gridlock traffic is pictured on highway 395 (Jason Reed/Reuters).

In the wake of the latest, sadly predictable failure by the Congress to pass a long-term highway funding bill, the Renewing America initiative is releasing today a new Policy Innovation Memo, Encouraging U.S. Infrastructure Investment, by Scott Thomasson, the president of NewBuild Strategies and an expert on infrastructure financing.

I would like to write that Thomasson has put forward a bold new initiative to address the decrepit state of America’s transportation infrastructure, a plan that would catapult the United States back into the global lead and provide a strong foundation for future growth. But the failure by Congress yet again to act on even the very modest highway funding proposals that were on the table in the House and the Senate counsels rather more realism. We need a new aphorism: it is time to stop letting the barely adequate be the enemy of the plausibly achievable.

Thomasson, who knows the political landscape of this issue thoroughly, has put forward a series of smart, reasonable, beneficial measures that could either gain bipartisan support in Congress, or could be enacted by the administration without congressional action. Congress, he said, should remove the regulatory shackles that prevent states from expanding tolling and entering into innovative financing arrangements that would increase private investment in highways. Existing federal financing programs should be coordinated and beefed up. And the administration should eliminate time-consuming, duplicate reviews for transportation infrastructure projects, instead adopting the “one-stop” review used for natural gas pipelines.

Taken together, these measures would unlock billions of dollars for infrastructure financing at a time when the need is enormous, and financing and labor costs are extremely low. They should have cross-party appeal, because the measures are aimed at reducing unnecessary regulation and increasing private sector involvement, and would do so at little or no cost to the federal treasury. And they have the added virtue of focusing on largely technical fixes that could not readily be spun by either party for political advantage in an election year. In short, there is simply no reason for Congress and the administration not to move forward on these measures.

There is a broader point, with relevance to many issues other than infrastructure, which Thomasson’s paper underscores. The more that critical policy problems continue to fester, the more it starts to appear that only big solutions will suffice.  That was certainly the thinking behind the failed “cap-and-trade” energy bill to address climate change, or the failed efforts to negotiate a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction.  I have been as attracted to this as anyone. I was the project director for CFR’s 2009 Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, co-chaired by Jeb Bush and Mack McLarty, which called for ambitious comprehensive immigration reform legislation that now looks utterly impossible. And when big solutions like these fail, it starts to look like the problems themselves simply cannot be addressed.

That is overly defeatist. As Thomasson shows here, there are many important steps forward that are possible without grand bargain legislative negotiating. On infrastructure and other issues, the Obama administration and Congress should identify and seize those opportunities wherever they exist.

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