A friend of mine in Baltimore emailed last night to ask if I'd heard about a landslide near where he lives. I hadn't, but it was a doozy
-- part of a major street collapsed yesterday, swallowing cars and flooding railroad tracks that ran below street level.
Fortunately, and somewhat miraculously, no one was injured, but seeing the footage was a timely reminder that now would an excellent time for the United States to make some investments in transportation infrastructure.
At roughly the same time as the Baltimore slide, Michael Grunwald was reporting
that the Obama administration is thinking along the same lines.
Republicans have urged the Obama Administration to propose a major transportation bill, calling America's crumbling infrastructure a natural issue for bipartisan cooperation. Well, on Tuesday, the Administration unveiled a four-year, $300-billion transportation bill. It included a 22% increase in highway funding, a 70% increase in transit funding, and a provision allowing states to put tolls on interstates. At a time when one in nine U.S. bridges are rated "structurally deficient," and nearly half the public lacks access to public transit, it's a pretty ambitious piece of legislation.
Well, good. Improvements to the nation's transportation infrastructure are not exactly optional -- this is a question of "when" not "if." It's not like we're prepared to stop moving people and products around the country, and it's more cost effective to repair and improve existing infrastructure than wait for roadways to deteriorate to the point of collapse.
And at least in theory, the pieces appear to have lined up nicely. We have a strong need for improvements; we have workers eager to begin projects and earn a paycheck; and we can even borrow money easily to afford these investments.
So why is it the White House's major transportation bill generated almost no attention this week? Perhaps because it's generally understood that congressional Republicans aren't going to pass it.
More from Grunwald's piece
[N]o matter how much Republicans say they care about infrastructure, they're not going to accept any infrastructure proposals that come from President Barack Obama. They opposed his $50 billion "roads, rails and runways" proposal in 2010, and then again when it was expanded and incorporated into his American Jobs Act in 2011. They've blocked Obama's plans for an infrastructure bank and a national high-speed rail network. They've also blocked Obama's proposals for corporate tax reform, which is relevant, because the new GROW AMERICA Act depends on tax reform for much of its financing. Other than its hideous acronym -- it stands for Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America -- GROW AMERICA has a lot of attractive features. It extends Obama's commitment to "Fix It First," focusing on upgrades for neglected infrastructure that will reduce the nation's maintenance backlog rather than new projects that increase the maintenance backlog. And while transportation bills are known on Capitol Hill as "highway bills," GROW AMERICA continues the Administration's subtle shift towards passenger rail, freight rail, dedicated bus lanes, and other programs that don't necessarily involve asphalt.
Obama and his team keep unveiling policy proposals like these, as if the American policymaking process were still normal and a functioning Congress stood ready to evaluate proposals on the merits. Left unsaid, however, is that just about everyone, including officials in the West Wing, realizes that the administration is going through the motions, cognizant of the fact that the legislative branch of government won't actually do anything, even in response to good, necessary ideas.
Indeed, Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee made this argument rather explicitly
this week, insisting that they'll approve hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks, relying exclusively on deficit financing, but Democrats shouldn't bother to even ask about "new spending" -- on anything.
Barring an unexpected turnaround in voter-turnout models this year, it means U.S. infrastructure will simply have to wait for an indefinite number of years for a sorely needed upgrade.