In April the Bloustein School hosted former Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell for a discussion on the state of America’s infrastructure at the 2017 Gov. James J. Florio Distinguished Visiting Scholar Lecture.
In partnership with the offices of Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt, & Fader LLC, in 2016 the Bloustein School recognized former New Jersey Gov. Florio’s public service career through the endowment of an annual, high-level visiting scholar. In addition to meeting and interacting with Bloustein School faculty and students at a roundtable discussion, the visiting scholar presents a public lecture on a topic of current relevance to the country.
During his introduction of Gov. Rendell, former New Jersey Governor and Bloustein School Senior Policy Fellow James J. Florio noted problems cannot be fixed if one does not understand what the problems are, and that there cannot be answers to those problems if you do not know what the questions are. As both Mayor and Governor, Gov. Rendell went out of his way to establish rapport with his fellow Pennsylvanians in order to bring people together and effectively communicate, saying, “He believes very strongly in the fact that we have to have people engage in the present and in the process in order to succeed.”
As Mayor of Philadelphia, Gov. Rendell became president of Rebuild America, an organization dedicated to rebuilding American infrastructure. He was dissatisfied with the progress of the organization, however, because he believed that members had a pecuniary interest on what they would gain from an infrastructure revitalization program, and the organization eventually collapsed. When he became Pennsylvania’s governor, he founded a bipartisan infrastructure advocacy group, Building America’s Future Education Fund (BAF Ed Fund) with former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“One day I was talking about infrastructure on Morning Joe and radio host Mika Brzezinski said, the problem with infrastructure is that it’s the least sexy word in the English language,” Rendell recalled. “And it was true. When we started Building America’s Future in 2008 infrastructure was not on the radar for very many Americans; and was not really on the radar of any American politicians. It was hard to get people stimulated about the need to do infrastructure revitalization.” Citing as an example the I-35W Mississippi River bridge disaster in Minneapolis in August 2007, he noted that for a few weeks after this and almost any disaster, there was a lot of public interest, and then the interest dissipated and little was done.
Over the course of time, he said, Building America’s Future and other initiatives have combined to bring greater awareness to America’s infrastructure needs. “Now the American people have a better understanding of infrastructure, of what it is, and they keenly understand the needs of the American infrastructure. So we’ve come a long way in that sense.”
He also noted that America’s infrastructure has continued to decay over the course of time, and has decayed rapidly. During his time as mayor of Philadelphia, there was a winter where the city had one of the longest consecutive runs of sub-freezing temperatures. The cold snap ended with two days of temperatures in the 60s. “And not surprisingly,” he said, “water mains all over the city burst. We had 58 different water main breaks in those two days and we were scrambling to repair them. When I asked my water commissioner why this happened, and was there was a way of preventing this, he said not really, because half our pipes—and remember I was mayor in the 1990s—half of our pipes were laid in the 19th century. Meaning, 100 years old. They were laid with the technology of the time, so they were laid very shallow, very close to the ground surface, and were very susceptible to changing temperatures. So our infrastructure was very old.”
In addition, he discussed how many of the state’s automobile and railroad bridges are over 120 years old, but the the suggested recommended lifespan for a bridge is 40 years. Across the United States today, he said, there are 60,000 structurally deficient bridges, each one on the brink of becoming a tragedy.
Rendell explained that the World Economic Forum, which evaluates infrastructure, in 2000 ranked the U.S. infrastructure number one in quality and number two in economic competitiveness. But in 2016, the U.S. was ranked #15 in quality and number #17 in economic competitiveness. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which conducts a “report card” of the American infrastructure every four years, has confirmed that the rating of the American infrastructure as D-, and hardly any subdivision gets over a C+. “The problem is,” he said, “we’ve stopped investing in infrastructure. We haven’t had a real infrastructure revitalization program since Dwight David Eisenhower suggested the interstate highway system in the 1950s.”
“Each year our infrastructure investment becomes a declining part of our GDP. Each year our infrastructure investment does not keep track with population growth. Since 2000 the population in America has increased by 14%; our road miles have increased by 4%. It doesn’t compute.”
Why is it that no one seems to care about infrastructure? Primarily, he noted, it’s because infrastructure competes in our federal budget with things that are more pressing including healthcare, the military, and education. “Really, the way we do infrastructure in the federal government makes no sense…at the city, county, or state levels, infrastructure is funded by the capital budget of the city, county, or state. However, the federal government is the only political subdivision in America that does not have a capital budget. President Clinton commissioned a panel to decide whether we needed a federal capital budget,” he said, noting that he and several other testified to its necessity. In the end the U.S. treasury decided that it was not needed, because it would raise taxes. “So infrastructure still competes with yearly needs—Social Security, Medicaid, you name it.”
A second point he made is that American politicians do not seem to understand that the American people are not dumb. “Americans understand that if you buy a $15,000 car you don’t get the same value as if you buy a $35,000 car. They also understand if you buy a $35,000 car, you have to pay to maintain it—it does not maintain itself. They understand that the basic principles that apply to their own lives apply elsewhere.” Along the same lines, he explained that 70% of transportation referendums proposed in the last 20 years have passed at the ballot box, and each one of them called for increases tolling and increased taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements. And the politicians who proposed and voted for those increased taxes were all voted back into office by the people who would be paying those taxes.
Gov. Rendell explained how infrastructure spending has four important benefits for the long-term health of the country. First, it increases the safety of the public. He questioned how many tragic collapses would occur before something is done about the nation’s 60,000 structurally deficient bridges. Second, infrastructure spending increases quality of life. He gave the example of the Scudders Falls Bridge between New Jersey and Philadelphia, currently a two-lane bridge in each direction with no shoulder. A proposal was made to increase it to four lanes in each direction and a shoulder, cutting the crossing time—currently an hour and a half round trip to an hour round trip— to an overall five hours a week, or about 250 hours a year, or 10 days of one’s life.
Third is the nation’s economic competitiveness. The U.S. is losing out in the global marketplace because our infrastructure is not first class. Metallurgical coal, used in steel production, is mined in only two places on earth—in U.S. and Australia. The U.S. is loses out on billions of dollars in sales simply because Australia can get their metallurgical coal stock from their mines to their port cities in approximately one-quarter of the time that U.S. suppliers can rail it or truck it from the mines to U.S. port cities. In addition, only three of 14 major U.S. port cities have the required 50 ft. dredge required for the new, larger container ships. This means that ships will embark or debark in Canadian ports, costing the U.S. tens of thousands of longshoreman, truckers, and other blue-collar jobs that rely on the ports. Finally, he noted that the very act of revitalizing our infrastructure creates millions well-paying jobs in construction and manufacturing as well as in the supply chain.
He wrapped up his discussion by citing a study by the Texas Transportation Institute, which found that investing in infrastructure actually saves you money. It found that the average driver (12,000/year) spends $818 a year because of inadequate infrastructure. The bulk of the spending is gas consumed while sitting in traffic but a significant portion of it is damage due to roads in disrepair. A proposed bill by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) to moderately increasing the federal gas tax would add about $135 per year in taxes, but the overall total would like decrease because of savings from the infrastructure improvements.
“The cost of doing nothing about the American infrastructure is greater than the cost of doing something,” he concluded. “The most painful thing about our lack of willingness to invest in our infrastructure is what it says about our country. We do not think seem to think that it’s important enough to invest in ourselves. This country was built because the people who founded it and the people who were the first stewards of it understood that we have to do big things to make progress.”
“Thomas Jefferson went and gave the go-ahead to build the Erie Canal even though the politicians didn’t want to pay for it and engineers said it wasn’t likely to work. Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War and with all the other things he had to worry about at the time, went ahead and developed the transatlantic railroad system. Dwight Eisenhower decided that in order for America to grow it needed a national highway system. We always did the big things that were necessary.”
“Infrastructure is symptomatic of why this country is falling behind. We do not do hard and difficult things anymore. We say we’ll get to that later, or it’s too expensive, or we can’t do it. This country was built on risk-takers—prudent risk-takers….the Declaration of Independence says ‘We pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.’…We are a great country because we had leaders who took proven risks, and who drove us into the future. And if we don’t do something about our infrastructure and do something about it soon it will literally crumble before us.”