Wanted: A National Commitment to Infrastructure

August 10, 2007

In the wake of the disastrous Minneapolis bridge collapse last week policy makers have sprung into action. From the predictable calls for immediate inspections on older bridges, to cries for increased spending and emergency appropriations, our nation’s infrastructure has suddenly—and tragically—been thrusted into the national spotlight.

Yet experts question whether this one-shot, isolated infusion of attention will really make a difference in Washington. The sad fact is that this infrastructure epiphany is long overdue.

For years, a cadre of civic, political, and corporate leaders from coast to coast have called for an increased federal role to improve, modernize, and maintain the nation’s infrastructure. Their alarm bells have gone unheeded.

Instead, two years ago this month President Bush signed a nearly $300 billion transportation law that was infamously known for its 6,300 pet pork project earmarks. Analysts have been quick to pounce this week on projects like the “bridge to nowhere” as the root of the nation’s transportation woes.

They are missing the bigger picture. Even though the $20 billion that comes from the thousands and thousands of earmark projects is a lot of money by any measure, this is only about 5 percent of the overall federal transportation program.

The real problem is that we have a national transportation framework that is adrift. It takes an almost agnostic approach to how those billions of dollars are spent and it does not hold the recipients of the federal money – the states, mainly – accountable for meeting any kind of national goals or objectives.

Despite separate bureaucratic programs that lay out a framework for funding different activities, the federal government has virtually no discretion (other than the questionable earmark process) in determining which transportation projects get built or how states spend their transportation dollars. In fact, the U.S. code neuters the federal role and states specifically that the appropriation of highway funds “shall in no way infringe on the sovereign rights of the States to determine which projects shall be federally financed.”

In other words, once funds are allocated the states can distribute them among projects as they see fit. Oversight is limited only to ensuring that they comply with federal guidelines and accepted design standards.

It should be no wonder then that a little-noticed report from the watchdog U.S. Government Accountability Office recently found that the federal transportation program is functioning as a “cash transfer, general purpose grant program.” President Bush reinforced this point in 2004 when he referred to the nation’s transportation law as a governmental “entitlement program.”

But perhaps a bigger problem than this abdication of decision making authority is that there is no accountability for meeting even the most basic performance goals and objectives such as safety, congestion relief, or improving air quality. The U.S. Department of Transportation has outlined appropriate performance measures as required by the Government Performance Results Act, yet the department does not hold the recipients of federal highway funding accountable for their performance nor is funding linked to success.

In other words, a state that prioritized spending so none of its bridges were structurally deficient would not be rewarded in any way, nor would a state that allowed its infrastructure to slip further into disrepair be penalized.

This laxity is astonishing for several reasons. One is due to the sheer size of the program: nearly $50 billion federal dollars every year. Another is the inconsistency with other recently reformed federal programs such as welfare and education. Congress established a management assessment system for public housing agencies and created a performance measurement and reward system in the 1996 welfare reform law.

The bottom line is that—with very little to show for the largest public works investment in our nation’s history—the nation can no longer afford a hands-off federal program. The federal government needs to make the preservation, maintenance, and modernization of the existing system a national priority and it needs to take a lead role in holding the states accountable for doing so. Safety should be assumed, not hoped for.

As the nation gears up for the presidential election, the candidates should use this tragic event as the occasion for articulating their vision for a 21st century transportation system. Such a vision should reinforce what the American people want—safety, accountability, and performance—not waste, bureaucracy, and uncertainty.

A crisis is looming. In light of the recent disaster Americans deserve a real commitment from the national government to finding answers—not more of the same.