12/4/08: "Rebuilding America," a discussion on WBUR's "On Point" with host, Tom Ashbrook.
Guests include: New York Times economics reporter, David Leonhardt; Robert Puentes, Brookings Institute fellow and professor of public policy at Georgetown; Urban Land Institute consultant Jonathan David Miller; and callers and emailers to the on-air discussion.
Tom Ashbrook: Back when the words "America" and "modern" were practically synonyms, one great reason was that the US had abundant connective tissue much of the world sorely lacked: first class highways, railways, power lines, waterways, dams, telephones, telegraphs -- lots and lots of gleaming new infrastructure. Well, it's not new anymore. Now, rebuilding infrastructure is front and center in the Obama vision of economic stimulus. But what will we get? ... [Now] the push for huge infrastructure spending and what we should be building. Where should we start, and what will it look like for the 21st century. You couldn't turn anywhere in the past week and not here "infrastructure" talk -- and most of all, at the big governors' conference in Philadelphia. Obama was there, Joe Biden was there. Here he is, in his inimitable way, the VP elect, saying the US needs to get going. It's being left in the dust by competitors.
[Soundclip] China invests between 7 and 9% of their GDP in infrastructure projects. We invest, as a nation over the last decade or more, less than 1%. And there's a reason that, when you turned on the Olympics to watch this last summer, you saw the mag-lev train going over 200 miles and hour in supposedly a "third world" country in terms of its economy, blowing into town, dealing with the environmental problems they have as well as transporting people in a way that we don't even come close to being able to do.
TA: Just Democrats talking infrastructure? No way! Here's California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Governors' Conference, talking turkey.
[Soundclip] We have $28 billion alone of projects ready to go, literally putting shovels into the dirt within a few months. America has not done anything when it comes to real serious infrastructure rebuilding in the last four decades. I think it's time we get our act together and do it. This is a good opportunity, not only because it would built an infrastructure but because it creates great jobs and gets the economy stimulated.
TA: And now we've got David Leonhardt of the New York Times joining us, economics columnist for the Times, contributor to the Times in a blog. ...David, so much talk about economics and infrastructure and economic stimulus. We're going to try to pull it apart. Talk to us about the tensions here. Clearly there's a huge need out here at lots of levels for physical, shovel-in-the-dirt stuff, as "Ah-nold" was saying -- and also for stimulus. But this is not a simple equation, not a simple picture.
David Leonhardt: No, it's really not. And there are two big tensions. The first is the question of doing it well and doing it quickly. If we went out and knocked down a whole bunch of buildings and then rebuilt them the next day, that would do wonders to stimulate the economy. We could, in fact, knock down some energy-efficient buildings and put up some energy-inefficient buildings and it would do wonders for the economy.
TA: Lots of jobs and lots of paychecks.
DL: Exactly! As one economist said to me, "You dig holes and fill them again!" But obviously that doesn't do anything to help us float. So the question is, how do we sort through the idea of doing projects that make sense but also doing them quickly enough so that they will stimulate the economy. We don't need to worry about making them happen within the next few months. The economy is likely to be weak for, I think, at least two years. Certainly at least a year and I think two years is much more likely. So if you have projects that start late in '09 and go into '10, that could definitely be part of a good stimulus bill. But you don't really want projects that start in December of 2010.
TA: Too late. Get it going right now when it needs an electric shock.
DL: That's right. It's too late to be of much use in preventing the sort of vicious cycle in which lack of jobs leads to lack of spending which leads to more job cuts and more spending cuts.
TA: What kind of money are we talking about? There's an overall stimulus package. Pelosi and Harry Reid are talking about a $500 billion-something on Obama's desk by January 20th, Inauguration Day. Obama aides are talking $700 billion. Joe Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winning economist, is talking a trillion. Of course, that's not all infrastructure. What kind of money?
DL: I think most of those numbers, when numbers like that are kicked about, are referring to two years. One handy number to keep in mind is that 1% of GDP is now about $150 billion. So if you took, say, $700 billion spread over two years, you're talking about about $350 billion a year which is a little over 2% of GDP a year. And it's possible to imagine having a sizeable portion of that -- $50 billion? who know, $100 billion? -- in each year being infrastructure. I don't think it's going to be mostly infrastructure or anywhere close to it.
TA: But if we got up into those numbers, David, where does that put us in terms of getting back in the game of building, rebuilding infrastructure, where everyone agrees we've lagged for decades?
DL: Well, that gets to the second tension. I don't quite agree with the numbers the vice-president elect used in that little snippet that you played. He said that China spends 7% and the US spends less than 1%. There are all kinds of different ways to measure these things. It depends on what you include and what you don't include. I think the US is probably spending more in the range of 2, 3, 4% of GDP. But it does trail other countries. China is probably not the best comparison is a country not nearly as far along in its economic development than the US.
TA: It's on a tear and it needs a helluva lot for infrastructure. But mag-lev trains? He's right! We've got nothing like what they've got that way!
DL: That's exactly right. And anyone who goes to Europe or China and then comes home can really see, in a very tangible way. You leave these gleaming airports and come home to bedraggled airports! Tom Friedman of the Times talks about that -- about leaving an overseas airport and coming back to JFK.
TA: And it doesn't feel so "first world" by comparison here sometimes.
DL: It doesn't. The real second tension, though, is not just a matter of how much we spend. It's also a matter of how we do it. If you look at the numbers on infrastructure spending as a share of GDP, it fell really rapidly after the '60's and '70's -- the end of the period when we were building the interstate highway system. It fell really rapidly. But since then it's been rising. Infrastructure spending as a share of GDP is at a 25 or 30 year high. In inflation-adjusted dollars, it's risen enormously over the last decade -- a little big faster than the US economy has risen. Now, it hasn't risen fast enough. I'm not saying we're doing enough spending on infrastructure. But the first problem isn't the amount of spending. It's the complete lack of rigor in how we spend it. So when we spend these dollars, we don't go around and look at how we could spend so it would do the most help to the economy. How can we spend it so it could do the most to cut carbon emissions. How could we spend it so it would do the most to cut traffic. Instead we end up building roads we don't need. We've all heard of examples like the bridge to nowhere. Pork isn't really the biggest problem. It's a problem. But a bigger problem is that we're not even really trying. When we go out to decide on these projects, we're not analyzing them from any sort of standpoint of economics or energy the way other countries do. Britain, and some of the other countries in northern Europe, really do this much more seriously than we do.
TA: You say that kind of casually but what you're describing there is a kind of travesty! You've described recently in the Times a system built for boondoggle and a first-world country just not paying attention to the overall picture of critical infrastructure. And we may have only one shot in the 21st century because of this confluence of events, and you're saying there's not really a government structure to make sure it gets done, or gets done anything like right!
DL: Absolutely! One of my favorite examples is sports stadiums. I'm a big sports fan, so I'm not going to say that we shouldn't have nice sports stadiums. But we spend all this government money subsidizing team owners and, to some extent, subsidizing fans, to replace perfectly good stadiums with stadiums that are just a little bit nicer and have more luxury boxes. That is a crazy use of government money relative to investing in ways that might reduce traffic and give people more time at their jobs or more time with their families -- or ways that would reduce carbon emissions and do thing to benefit the planet and make us less reliant on oil producing countries that are pretty virulently anti-American.
TA: And make us competitive and remaining affluent for a whole new century!
DL: Exactly! And so Obama has talked about this idea of setting up something called an infrastructure bank. In and of itself, it doesn't solve the problem but it actually has the potential to help. An infrastructure bank would finance infrastructure projects separately from the annual budgets of the government.
TA: So it's a way to end-run Congress and put someone less political in charge?
DL: That's not inherent in the idea. But the way Obama talks about it, he has suggested it would involve that. Not a bad model is the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve is a group of experts that Congress has set up. They were an act of Congress. But Congress doesn't control their individual decisions. I think it would be idea to see something similar for infrastructure in which Congress sets aside the money -- that's who controls the money in this country, Congress and the executive branch. And that's the way it needs to be. They're democratically accountable. But they're not making the individual decisions about whether to build a highway in western Pennsylvania that no one's ever going to use or whether to subsidize a sports stadium that really isn't a particularly good use of money. Instead what they're going to do is they are going to dedicate the money. And then you're going to have a group of people whose job it is to try to analyze which things actually make sense. And they have to report to the public. Ideally, you'd want something more open than the Federal Reserve. And it wouldn't be behind closed doors. But it also wouldn't be subject to the vicissitudes of politics in the way Congress is. To take one small example: we really need states and cities cooperating more than they do. So ideally what we would have is the federal government saying, "You know what? Maryland and Virginia and Washington DC, you're doing a great job of coordinating your highways and your mass transit and your light rail and all that. We're going to give you more money! New York, New Jersey and Connecticut? You're doing a bad job. You're each doing your own thing. You don't have any kind of integrated plan. We're not going to give you money."
TA: That would get people's attention!
DL: That would get people's attention and you can understand why Congress can never do it. Right?
TA: Right! Backscratching here... This is a big deal. This is a huge part of the economy that's collapsing. And really, for this country's competitiveness, for I don't know how many decades!
DL: I think we really do have a chance here because it's great both the administration and Congress are putting their attention on the fact that we need more money. The Congressional Budget Office recently said that they thought there were about $100 billion in annual spending that could productively be done that's not being done now on infrastructure.
TA: ... Barack Obama has been talking a lot about infrastructure recently. Radio address November 21st. Here's Barack Obama saying his economic recovery plan would include a focus on jobs creation and infrastructure.
[Soundclip] We'll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels, fuel efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead. These aren't just steps to pull ourselves out of our immediate crisis. These are the longterm investments in our economic future that have been ignored for far too long.
TA: We're joined, from San Francisco, by Jonathan David Miller. He is a consultant for the Urban Land Institute and author of the institute's 2008 Competitive Advantage report. ... And from Washington, Robert Puentes, an expert on tranportation and infrastructure. He's a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy program. Everybody looks to him when it comes to what ought to be built. ... Robert, there's the president-elect talking roads, bridges, schools, wind farms, solar panels and right on down! Are you hearing the right things when it comes to the kinds of ingredients for what may be a very large infrastructure push.
Robert Puentes: I think so. Absolutely! The conversation coming out of the president-elect about the type of infrastructure that we need is very telling. He's talking about rebuilding infrastructure, rebuilding roads and bridges, and the kind of green infrastructure that will put us on the road to an environmentally sustainable future and an energy efficient economy. I think it's critical, though, that we connect those proposals -- and the things that he's talking about -- with everything else that's going on here in Washington. The stimulus proposal that the House passed back in September really wouldn't be very consistent with that agenda. There's a lot of squaring of the circles that we need to do between where everybody knows we need to go and how Washington is currently approaching the issue of infrastructure and infrastructure spending.
TA: Jonathan David Miller, what's your confidence level that if we line up hundreds of billions of dollars to try and jump-start the economy and aim a lot of it at national infrastructure -- that we'll get the right stuff?
JDM: Well, you've got to be hopeful that for the first time in a long time, as everybody's been pointing out, we're focused on it. That's so important because we have neglected it. The first thing we have to do to fix it, is that we have a lot of infrastructure that's old and needs to be repaired and put in good shape. So I think this initial burst can really focus on that, and that could be very helpful. We want to avoid the bridges to nowhere and the pork projects. The bigger issue, though, as you pointed out at the top of the program, is that 21st century vision -- in the 19th century, we build canals, and after World War II we built this fantastic interstate system. So we need a new vision that integrates roads, mass transit, railways, that focuses on our major national and regional centers. We're going to be adding 100,000 new people into our population during the next 30 years or so ....
TA: Up to 400,000 million?
JDM: Yeah! And people are going to be concentrating in our major metropolitan areas. We can't continue to be car-dependent. It's going to change our life-styles. It's going to mean we have to pay more to move around. But if we do it right, we'll have more convenient life-styles and we'll maintain our competitiveness. So we have to integrate where we live with how we move around. So we need multi-modal transport solutions that involve being able to walk to stations, to use the car less, to have high-speed rail in regional corridors, to have high-speed rail between city centers and airports. It's going to cost some money, but in the end it will make us a much more competitive economy. We'll all do better.
TA: Robert Puentes, I can't help but worry. There's clearly a big opportunity here but there seems to be a tension between the economic need for a stimulus, for fast action -- get the shovel in the dirt right now and rebuild. Versus a kind of green infrastructure for a new century. If we rebuild fast and furious, aren't we likely to just build more of the same kind of 20th century infrastructure that's been fossil-fuels dependent, that's the old transportation .... Are we really fresh, forward-looking infrastructure if we do it quick and dirty?
RP: Yes. Infrastructure investments should be included in the bill to jump-start the economy. We've gotten past some of the blockades that always inhibited infrastructure from being used as stimulus. The unfortunate reality, as David mentioned, is that we're in for a long slog here. So infrastructure does have a role here. But the focus should be on those investments that secure the existing systems and help them transition to a clean, efficient, and energy-independent future. We can create millions of green jobs, job opportunities for under-employed families -- for all kinds of different things. But we need -- as Jonathan mentioned -- to think very carefully about infrastructure. We still have a system that is rooted in the 1950's. We have not done the hard thing and updated that system for the reality of the 21st century. If we continue to pour money into the existing system, we're not going to get any of the benefits we've talked about. The system is not just broke, it's broken! We need to recognize that and respond accordingly. It's not just stimulus that's coming up in January ... But there are all kinds of things on the legislative calendar in Washington and across the country -- energy bill, climate bill, transportation bill. All of these things are coming up in 2009. It would be inconsistent -- and a very difficult position -- if the stimulus bill didn't send a signal to those other gigantic, legislative priorities that this nation is going to have to think very differently about infrastructure and it's going to put us on the path to a new future.
TA: I want to get into some of the details of what that future might be, but we've got a lot of suggestions and thoughts from listeners. Let's take a call from Sandersville, Georgia
Hovey: What I think is sort of missing from this discussion is that we have 135 aging nuclear power plants that need to be replaced almost immediately just to keep our electrical capacity up to snuff. Then we have new cleaner coal technology coming on, and some of these plants are being held up by various parts of the permitting process.
TA: But that's all private industry stuff, Hovey, isn't it?
Hovey: Private industry? True! Funded by private money. So this does not require taxpayer input. These people have dollars in hand and are ready to invest.
TA: Are you suggesting that a big public spending, infrastructure push should get directly into that kind of energy production business?
Hovey: In the sense of furthering and fostering the speed-up of these permits and allowing industry to do its thing and give us the power we need when we need it. This will put billions of dollars into the economy now.
TA: Isn't that a private investment decision? Or are you saying the Obama administration itself should get the government into it?
Hovey: Get the government into it insofar as it speeds up the process.
TA: Got it! So give the green lights and get that going. David Leonhardt, what about this dance between public and private? A lot of private money on the sidelines right now. Credit not really moving. And yet there are big private opportunities in infrastructure as well. Do you see more permitting, more cooperation? Do you see the government moving in where private industry's not moving today?
DL: I think the most important thing the government can do is get the right framework for private industry. I don't think you want the government making too many fine-grain decisions about precisely what to invest in, in areas that are traditionally private. But what it can do, first of all, is make sure the financial markets are still functioning so that private companies can actually get loans. But it can also make sure we have the right incentives, and right now we surely don't. Right now we are not building the full cost of carbon use into carbon use. And so if we had something like the carbon tax, or cap in trade, the government wouldn't then have to decide which of the various alternative things they need to fund. It would instead be setting up the rules that would make it profitable to get behind these alternative energy things which would be better for the planet and which -- again -- would be sending less money overseas to countries that are using that money in ways that aren't particularly friendly to this country.
TA: So a big matrix of interests and ways to stimulate them here. ... Let's get a call from Summerville, South Carolina.
Jan: I want to make two major points. One is that a stimulus package to repair bridges and things like that -- I think that's important. But I think what is more important is to start and stimulate new industries because that way we create new wealth.
TA: Like what?
Jan: Well, for example, we know energy is a problem. We ought to be looking at what Europe and China are doing. In Europe, they're taking manure and other waste products and making biogas. That's a renewable resource we're never going to run out of. Here in the Carolinas we've got big hog farms and we could make enough biogas for natural gas to run our cities here in the southeast.
TA: So not just bridges but new green initiatives.
Jan: But make it simple and cheap! Everybody wants to surcharge every person in this county for a new nuclear power plant. It would increase our bill by 30% and we don't even want this nuclear power plant! And we're going to be charged for it now when it won't even be built five years from now. We could use biogas or biomass to make electricity. The second thing we could do is look at transportation. What we can do right now is to use some very efficient crops to make ethanol to run our cars on. That's what Brazil does. We have crops in the south that would work for that. We have sweet potatoes and sweet sorghum that would do five to six times as much as corn. Every car in America, with a small modification -- a flexible fuel chip, can run on these fuels. Why do we have to do things the complicated way? Let's do it some way that will work today instead hydrogen cars which are twenty years away!
TA: .... Jonathan David Miller, first to you. How does that kind of concern -- okay, roads are fine but let's not just do old infrastructure, let get green encouragement going here! -- how does that intersect with the debate we're in the middle of and are likely to move deeper into?
JDM: Well, it's spot on! Energy, sustainability, infrastructure -- they all tie together. I think it's incumbent upon the Obama administration and Congress to start to break down some of the silos between housing, transportation, energy, and put together programs that tie all of these issues together. That's how we're going to provide a 21st century vision. We can't continue to do one-off projects -- a road here, a mass transit system there, a windmill over there, a power plant down the road. We have to tie all of these issues together to get an environment that will really work for us, both in terms of climate and economic competitiveness.
TA: ...Robert Puentes, how does that happen? How do those silos get broken down? And what's the vision that's going to set priorities and start getting that money moved out? Jan says, "Don't make it too complicated. Make it simple." Well, who's going to pick up on that? Is there a Robert Moses kind of big mind out there somewhere in the Obama camp or already in government that's going to oversee this? Is it an infrastructure bank? David Leonhardt mentioned Obama's idea there... Where does this go for steering?
RP: That's a great point. We've to understand where the conversation is today. When it comes to stimulus, the focus is on short-term jobs, on making sure the money gets out very quickly, that it can be spent quickly. We know the states are in for a world of hurt. If they're going to spend the money, they have a whole host of needs. That is where the focus is right now. I totally agree with the caller that we need to make sure this all sets us up for the new realities of the future. But the focus right now on the stimulus stuff really is on short-term jobs. That's where we need to be focusing attention -- see what we could do with that money to make sure there isn't any monkey-business and we can keep the mischief down. That we're using as a signal and that we're not going to do more of the same. In terms of the silos? Again, that's exactly right. Everybody else in the country -- households in South Carolina and everywhere -- understand the connections between housing, environment, energy, transportation. These things are fundamentally connected. It's only in the weird, siloed world of Washington where these things are separated.
TA: Do we have anybody looking over that whole landscape? Is there any office that's responsible for seeing it all as one piece? We all understand it is of one piece.
RP: The administration has a huge role to play in this. I think there's a lot of optimism and some understanding that this is something that going to be undertaken. President-elect Obama, when he was running for office talked about a White House office of urban or metropolitan policy where some of these issues would be connected. Some folks are talking about an infrastructure czar who would live in the White House and who would coordinate the myriad programs and policies that deal with infrastructure. Again, we have a Department of Housing, we have a Department of Transportation, we have a Department of Energy. Rarely do they work together. Within Transportation, we have a Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration, Federal Railroad Administration. This is a crazy way to do business! Every other industrialized country in the world looks at this and scratches their heads! We really need to get a handle on these silos -- make these broader connections and then talk about how this all connects to a broader vision for the future.
TA: We've got a comment on our website. The listener is saying, "The US is extremely lucky to have one last golden opportunity to repair and update infrastructure. And now gas prices are down ... We've just got a small window here." Do you see this administration lining up in a way that can break through the old log jams and gobbledegook of authorities and commissions and everything else, Jonathan, to get this done?
JMD: Well, we've got to hope so! We've heard all about change and I think Robert points to infrastructure czar. He points to some of these other departments that we have. We need to think in the 21st president and maybe change how we run our government to address these issues. And it's not only at federal level. It's at the state level where you have highway departments that don't coordinate with transit authorities, that don't coordinate with counties, villages and towns. Everybody doing their own thing. We've got to coordinate all of this, put a national structure in place, a regional structure in place to attack these issues. It's a bottom up but a top down approach. So the Obama administration really needs to look at changing how we deal with these issues because we're in a new age where we're falling behind. If we're going to get back ahead, we're going to have to deal with things differently.
TA: ... Montana's governor, Brian Schweitzer, said in a press conference that the public and government should not be lulled by the recent huge drop in gas prices but should press full speed ahead.
[Soundclip: "We are going to build an entire new energy system in America and we're going to reate five million new jobs. Some say with the price of oil dropping from $100+ to $50 a barrel, that the imperative has gone. Au contraire! Now we have so many more people who are unemployed, this is a great program to build a permanent new energy system including transportation and use the people who are currently unemployed to build it."]
TA: ... Let's take a call from Somerville, Massachusetts.
Patrick: ... I think this is right on point. Because one of the major issues ... because this country is, first, one of the most powerful countries in the world. But yet within the first world we also have third world and often even second or third world infrastructure. I spent some time last year on Hong Kong and Singapore. The infrastructure is superb. Their train system is absolutely amazing. And even the airport when we traveled from Singapore to Hong Kong and then back to Singapore and returned to California and Boston, it was as if we were shocked!
TA: It's kind of mind-blowing, isn't it! How sparkling and new and top-of-the-line, and then ... ugh! ... you're back in ratty subways in the crumbling, tumbledown USA.
Patrick: Absolutely! My original country is Haiti -- Haiti is third world. But yet for this country to be so powerful it has to be competitive and infrastructure has to be number one. So when you have trains that run as if it were the 1950's or 1960's in the most powerful country in the world, it is unacceptable. I think that ... the US has to be militarily number one but infrastructure and education must [also] be. Singapore was a third-world country in the 1940's and 1960's.
TA: No more!
Patrick: No more! Absolutely! And their infrastructure is absolutely superb. And now Singapore is lending money, in a sense, to the US.
TA: So pull up your socks and let's go, USA! Jonathan David Miller -- in your big report you've got some very scary headlines: "America Heads Towards Decline". And you're quoting, "The US is scarily behind where industrial nations should be and loses further ground to competitors." Patrick was reporting on something very real that many people don't often think about because we live in the midst of this infrastructure and take it for granted as it is.
JDM: Well, that's right. I think Americans -- I shouldn't say this but I'm going to -- tend to be somewhat insular. We think we're number 1. We've been number 1 in so many ways for so many years. But no longer in infrastructure. That speaks to our competitiveness going forward. I'd just like to make a point here about the tie between gas prices and infrastructure. Gas prices could go down to ten cents a gallon. Our issue here is congestion. We're going to be gridlocked if we don't do something about this. We're just not going to move anything!
TA: But there's the big question. A lot of people don't want to see just another 100,000 lanes with cars burning gas on them! But we're making decisions now.
JDM: That's right! And so that's why we have to orient to creating greater convenience for people. Transit-oriented development around transit stations and light rail lines. High speed rail that allows us to stop having to drive to airports. Then take short shuttle flights between places like Boston, New York, and Washington where we can take rail, center city to center city, avoiding car and patchy rides, avoiding congestion at our airports. Everyone has gotten stuck in airports after long delays. Everybody's gotten caught in traffic jams. People spend all their time, it seems, shuttling about in suburbs to get around and are totally car-dependent. We have to shift to a way to reduce car dependency and to increase our ability to get around easily.
TA: Robert Puentes -- what about that? We know how to do roads and bridges though we may not do them in the best order. There may be "bridges to nowhere." And that needs oversight. But how do you get the green factor in here effectively. These plans don't just pop out of the sky overnight because stimulus is desired. That means speed. But we're talking long-term. 21st century? Even the new national power grid people are talking about -- that could change the kind of vehicles on the road if that power started at a solar panel farm or a wind farm. Is that part of the picture? Are you confident that it will be?
RP: Confident is a difficult word! You're right. We need a wholesale change in how we're thinking about these things. Over the last twenty years we've managed to construct 132,000 miles of additional roadways in this country. That's enough to circle the globe more than five times! So we're still doing the same old thing as if these new realities weren't present. But here's something interesting: after years and years of steady increases, the total amount of driving in the US has slowed down dramatically. We're currently witnessing the largest sustained drop in driving that this nation has ever seen. Without a doubt, some of this is attributable to skyrocketing gas prices. ... But it hasn't bounced back. The interesting thing is that the same time driving has plummeted, people didn't stop traveling. They just changed how they travel. We're seen the largest increases -- huge increases -- in transit ridership and in Amtrak ridership than we've seen in a long time. It's increased about 85,000,000 trips over the last year, mostly in response to high gas prices. But now that they've dropped back down again, people haven't been going back. So there is something very different happening here in the country. I think it does take a new vision, then, to connect the realities of today and the issues of congestion that we've already talked about to what we want to have done in the future. This is a huge crisis, but it's also a tremendous opportunity for us to do something very different.
TA: And of course it's not just transportation. Let's take a call from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Scott: ... I'm an environmental engineer. I'm also a member of ASCE, the American Society of Civil Engineers. They come out every few years with an infrastructure report card for America. Last one was in 2005. The best grade America got on that was in the aviation sector -- and that was a "C." The worst was in water/wastewater treatment infrastructure. Those were both at D-minus. There are actually billions of gallons of raw sewage pumped into America's waterways every single year. If we're going to focus on the green side of everything, energy is an important part of that. But what does that mean if there's still raw sewage being pumped into our waterways?
TA: Jonathan David Miller -- what about the water piece of this? and moving water around? Big issues there. Is there enough money to address this whole spectrum? What do you see happening on the water/wastewater side?
JDM: Well, water is another huge issue. There are parts of the country that are running out of water. Atlanta came with in months of running out of water last year. In the Southwest, in the desert, we're building huge cities -- Phoenix, Las Vegas. Utah is expanding. Of course the whole southern California area depends on rather restricted water sources. This cuts across all infrastructure. People are going to have to pay more for water and for sewage treatment -- that's just a given. And we're going to have to become much more economical and conservation-oriented in terms of how we use water. This is just about in every part of the country. We're going to be using grey water, water than has been put into our rivers as the caller was talking about. And reusing that, recycling it into watering lawns and for other sources. We're going to have to become much more creative about how we use water and treat water. We're going to have to spend more to do that. But in the end, we will have water supplies which we take for granted but which we shouldn't!
TA: If we do the right spending. I want to think about the issue of money and how it gets applied here. I've got a little bit of tape from a Republican governor worrying about the cost of all this spending, saying, "Be careful!" This is South Carolina's governor, Mark Sanford, pushing back at the idea of huge public works projects, saying "instead of spending our way out of problems, America would spending its way into bigger problems down the road...":
[Soundclip: "I think stimulus is way beyond simply printing money and spending money out of Washington DC. What we're talking about is borrowing money to, in essence, solve a problem created by too much debt. What we're looking at here is frankly stacking up so much that I begin to worry about the value of the dollar. If we trash the value of the dollar, it doesn't matter how many checks we sent out of Washington DC, we're going to have a much bigger problem stimulating the overall economy."]
TA: Robert Puentes, how about it? We're talking very big money here but we're already spending a lot every year on infrastructure even though we haven't been able to push it to where it needs to be. Mark Sanford worries that if we put a great big push in here, it's debt -- we can't afford it and it just spirals out of sight.
RP: I don't mind the governor's comments generally. I think we need to be very careful about all this spending. Again -- the system's not just broke, it's broken! We can't afford to keep pouring more money into a broken system and the simple equation that infrastructure investments equal economic productivity is far too simplistic for the dynamic times that we're living in today. You can make the wrong kind of investments and not do anything to address things like household spending. We know that most American families spend more on transportation than they do on food and healthcare combined. Transportation is the number 2 household expense right now. If we're not going to make a dent in how much money people are spending on that piece of their budget, then it does raise real questions. We do know also that when we look back at the federal investments from the 1970's we saw a pretty good return on investment -- about 18% -- followed by a 5% return during the 1980's, followed by a 1% return during 1990's.
TA: Because they weren't well made in the '80's and '90's? Why? Poorly planned?
RP: ... On the federal level, most of this took the form of the interstates. The interstates were essentially finished being built by 1980. These were prioritized investments. Whatever you think about them, it was the result of a large national vision ...
TA: ... That was the good healthy payoff as opposed to... ? Would you have more boondoggles later?
RP: We haven't had anything. What we've had either bridges to nowhere -- a kind of a catch-phrase for a decision-making process gone wild. The last transportation bill had 6,000-plus earmarks in it and I don't think you could say with a straight face that those all aggregate up into a coherent national program. Now it's not the only problem -- the earmarks -- as David Leonhardt mentioned earlier. But it is emblematic of a larger problem. The programs right now are adrift and we really need to get a better handle on how the federal government is investing this money. It doesn't have to be top-down. They don't have to choose every project. But there needs to be some kind of framework, some kind of coherent frame for going forward.
TA: We have a call from Columbia, South Carolina.
CP: The thing we've got to decide in this country is that we're going with a total electric economy -- not the hydrogen economy or the pig-gas economy or anything like that. Once we decide that, then we need to build a mass-transit system to equal what we did with the interstate highway system. And the feature of this is that we've got to fight to buy the right-of-way, and with that right-of-way then we put the transmission lines to carry the electricity -- generated by windmills and solar and all like that -- to places where the people are.
TA: To get the new power grid out there so that people can plug into green energy carried by electricity.
CP: Right. That's the thing that's got to do it. We can't take this green energy off a windmill and get half the value off it by making hydrogen and then shipping hydrogen somewhere. It's got to be electric. That's the clean way to go.
TA: So let's get that grid built, you say. Jonathan David Miller, do you see the money, the planning, the push for new, national, smart power-gridding here? Is that part of this, or is that left to private investment?
JDM: We haven't talked about private investment. Private investment goes hand in hand with this and the government, as Robert was talking about, has to set a framework that ties these things together and incents the right behaviors both from industry and from all of us. The private funding aspect is going to be very, very important here. But what we all have to remember is whether it comes from private sources or from government sources, all of us are going to have to pay more for creating the type of infrastructure we really need in this country.
TA: People may be ready to do that if they have confidence that someone's going to orchestrate that and really build it!
JDM: You are absolutely right and that gets back to what good government is all about and that good leadership is all about. I think all of us have to focus our attention and our government leaders to say that we need an integrated vision coming from our various key government entities to help us get where we need to go.
TA: Robert Puentes, I was reading Bob Herbert, the columnist in the Times, saying last week, "On of the reasons the US is in such deep trouble is that it has stopped being smart, turning its back on excellence, sophistication, and long-term planning. We've lionized dimwits and now we're paying the price." Do you see the institutions of our government bracing to turn that around? Do you feel the urgency there in Washington?
RP: I do feel the urgency. What we need to do is a three-prong strategy. The federal government needs to lead in only those areas where the federal government can lead. Because these things are national in scope and scale, things that transcend state borders -- things we've talked about today around climate, energy, things that don't respect borders like freight movement -- things that are national in scope. The federal government should focus on these areas. Then they need to empower states and metropolitan areas to be innovative. We've seen so many innovations around this country that we need to encourage smart thinking -- as opposed to squashing it, which is what we've done so far. The third thing would be to make everybody smarter by having more  information. It's staggering how much we don't know about how much money is being spent or what the purpose of the spending is.
The comments section is open for your input, your fresh ideas, your criteria for updating the nation's infrastructure, your framework for harnessing the federal, state, and local bureaucracies -- and the private sector -- to help us join the rest of the world in the 21st century. Do you think America is prepared to "get smart," get organized, and put the necessary money and effort into modernization and rebuilding a strong economy?