There are about 1 billion cars on the world’s roads today. By mid-century, forecasts have that number climbing to 4 billion. Meanwhile, Congress is mired in a debate over whether to pass a new highway bill. Senator Barbara Boxer, a chief negotiator of the pending bill, lamented recently that she was “embarrassed for the people of this country” that this measure had not been enacted. After all, she said, passing highway bills used to be as popular and as important as “motherhood and apple pie.”
As with all previous highway bills, proponents generally wrap their arguments in projections for new jobs, or rhetoric that links fresh infrastructure spending to unclogging the arteries of commerce. For the president, a highway bill fits his campaign theme of getting America back to work. In a recent speech in Cleveland, the president issued a call to “rebuild America” and to do “some nation-building here at home.” The main obstacle remains how to pay for new spending and investment.
Flashback to 1998 and 2005: Those were the last years Washington enacted “highway bills,” or measures to reauthorize federal infrastructure spending programs. Now that the economy is sputtering in 2012, many would like to see Congress pull a page from the playbooks of those years. The taxpayer price tags for the ’98 and ’05 multiyear highway bills were $218 billion and $286 billion, respectively. Count President Obama as part of today’s infrastructure-stimulus choir, as he has proposed a $556 billion six-year bill.
Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser argues: “America’s infrastructure needs intelligent reform, not floods of extra financing or quixotic dreams of new moon adventures or high-speed railways to nowhere.”
U.S. policymakers would be wise to take a moment this summer to reflect on whether the national strategy they are contemplating for infrastructure investment properly prioritizes performance and leverages technology.