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Better Infrastructure: A Road to Recovery

February 18, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Amid all the news over the federal recovery package, there's near-unanimous support for its provisions to shore up American infrastructure: roads, bridges, rails and other vital public assets that fuel a stronger economy.

Polls and bipartisan policymakers' statements show that's true, even though - or perhaps because - the $150 billion provided is nowhere near what's needed. That's not to denigrate the measure, which focuses on quick bang for the buck, while infrastructure is by nature a long-term continuing project.

Minnesota stands to get $668 million for infrastructure from the measure over a couple of years, more than $500 million of it for roads and bridges. That's a big stack of cash, but it's not even a fourth of the state highway system's projected annual financing deficit for the next 20 years, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

In other words, Minnesota could get four of these federal money injections every year over the next two decades and still fall short of the $47 billion MnDOT says it will lack for trunk highways alone. And that doesn't even take into account the more than 90 percent of Minnesota's road and bridge miles built and maintained by counties, cities and townships.

On a national level, the recovery plan meets less than 7 percent of a $2.2 trillion overall infrastructure funding shortfall for the next five years recently estimated by the American Society of Civil Engineers. In fact, the $150 billion covers only a quarter of the $600 billion growth in that deficit over the past five years as measured by the group.

But here's the good news: Policymakers will have ample opportunity to address these failings in the normal course government business going forward. For example, the federal surface transportation act will be up for renewal this year, and already there are strong, credible calls for more realistic user financing through fuel or mileage taxes.

They are backed an American public that voiced 94 percent support for building up the country's infrastructure in a recent poll. And more than 80 percent said they'd pay 1 percent more in federal taxes to get the job done. The overall stimulus package hasn't garnered close to that kind of support.

In Minnesota, Twin Cities residents polled by the Metropolitan Council recently put transportation at the top of their list of concerns for the seventh time in eight years. It's estimated that road and bridge work alone from the stimulus will generate more than 15,000 Minnesota jobs in the next year. That's nearly a quarter of all the jobs the stimulus is projected to save or create in our state, with less than one-eighth of the funding

Best of all, this kind of cost-effective investment will pay economic dividends far into the future as roads are improved, bridges are rebuilt and transit connections enhanced.

So it's no surprise that even conservatives who oppose many elements of the recovery plan say it should have delivered more bricks and mortar, concrete and steel.

Minnesota shed 55,000 jobs in 2008, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget would directly eliminate 1,100 more over two years. Economists tell us we're not near the bottom yet. It's important to alleviate some of the immediate human suffering from this economic disaster, but the recovery investments that make life better for everyone over the long haul -- and build an economy vigorous enough to repay the money we are spending -- will be the ones we make in public infrastructure.

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