2008 National Planning Conference: Keynote Address

Congress and a New National Plan for Infrastructure

By Jim Hecimovich
Chief Editor, Planning Advisory Service Reports

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer told planners on Monday that Las Vegas is a good venue to talk about the challenges facing many communities in the U.S. because the difficulties that Las Vegas faces mirror many of those faced by each community. These challenges include water quality and sufficiency, energy supply and security, the demographic bubble, and the efficient functioning of the economy. And all of these challenges are also testing the laws of planning greatly.

Delivering the Opening Keynote address of APA's 2008 National Planning Conference, Blumenauer invoked the centennial, coming in May 2008, of President Theodore Roosevelt's gathering of the governors of the 46 states to develop an infrastructure program for the U.S. for the 20th century. The accomplishments of that convention resulted in the National Park System and, of course, through the century, the development of the interstate highway system.

It is clearly the time for new such infrastructure program for the 21st century — a program that would also necessarily consider the "new" infrastructure of aviation, green infrastructure, and the Internet. A national association of engineers has given the U.S. a grade of D-minus for the state of the country's infrastructure. Spending on infrastructure in the U.S. has fallen to six-tenths of 1 percent of GDP. Investment in infrastructure today is only half of what it was during the Reagan administration. When compared with the investment in infrastructure of other countries, including the EU, China, and India, there is clearly concern that the U.S. will fall further behind. And infrastructure is the backbone of both security and the economy.

The challenge for planners is not just a challenge of dollars and cents, however, Bluemenauer said. Undeniably, more money is needed, and we cannot create more debt. The congressman noted, for instance, that the Highway Trust Fund is running a deficit, and because its authoritative body has no borrowing power, the deficit may get significantly worse. Given this situation, talk about cutting the federal gas tax over the summer months to reduce gas prices seems wholly counterproductive to him. It also clearly sends the wrong pricing signals to the public at a time when conservation of oil and cutting dependence on foreign oil sources should be paramount.

What would be a better solution? Creation of a carbon credit market could be used to finance the highway fund as well as help in the fight to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. But the congressman warned that the public needs to be educated that this is the kind of solution that would be beneficial on a number of fronts — including cost to families — and that it should be supported politically.

Information about better infrastructure planning needs to be part of that education. For instance, Blumenauer cited the fact that one-third of all airline trips are 350 miles or fewer. Why have we neglected our rail system? It could transfer those air trips, reducing airline oil consumption and cost, airport congestion, and security concerns. And our neglect of planning for multimodal transportation, especially biking, is hard to understand given that 40 percent of local trips are shorter than two miles. And the consequences of such programs have significant economic effects. He pointed to research showing that in places like Portland, Oregon, transportation costs are 10 percent of the family budget, rather than the national average of 19 percent — a percentage that is growing. The consequence is that families in Portland have $2,500 more in discretionary income they can spend. And that spending is almost totally local rather than going into the pockets of the oil companies.

We also need to change the nature of the relationship between the federal government and local communities. It is possible to squeeze more value out of that relationship by eliminating many of the hurdles posed by the federal government and oversight is limited to only what is needed.

The congressman concluded by asking planners to show the passion they show on their jobs in becoming more active politically on the local level. Specifically, he called for the involvement of planners in each congressional district to bring forward issues related to a new infrastructure plan.

He called for a new infrastructure summit this fall, involving APA and its many related organizations, from environmental groups to the engineers. From this summit, he hopes to be able to put the presidential candidates on the spot in discussing their specific plans to deal with the challenges facing the U.S. in this area, as well as congressional leaders. As he noted at the conclusion, the problems the nation faces call for nonpartisan cooperation and effort if we are to succeed in drafting and implementing an effective infrastructure plan for the 21st century.

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