From the Beating a Dead Horse Dept….

I’ve read that President Obama, in his State of the Union address Tuesday will talk about how to create a society that fosters economic growth and opportunity. Sounds fine. Of course, the deficit and debt hang over all this and he will not be seen as credible if he does not address that.

So…..let’s return to something we have been saying here for a long time.

It is a fact that resources available for needed airport infrastructure investment are in decline. The government grant program and passenger facility charge mechanism are stagnant or declining. Most airports can still access the capital markets but debt isn’t always the best way to go. This at a time when competitors around the world are investing heavily.

As we have written to the Simpson Bowles Commission, the Senate Gang of 6, the so-called Super Committee and others, getting Washington out of the business of restricting the ability of communities to invest in airports can not only provided needed resources it can also, by reducing reliance on Washington, help take pressure off the federal budget and deficit. A group of large airports made a similar argument in their letters to the Super Committee.

I once wrote a blog saying the president can appeal to those who want more investment in infrastructure, those who want to create more jobs and those who want to reduce federal spending and the role of Washington by supporting a move to allow localities to raise their own resources for airport infrastructure. To some, this may not sound like a good State of the Union topic. To me, it seems like a natural.

Begin the Drumbeat

I recently wrote a blog about the discouraging level of debate in American politics these days, and the example I used was a recent Republican debate where a lot more time was spent on a question about contraception than was spent on one about infrastructure.  The post was not about the Republicans per se; I talked about how Democrats also use issues like infrastructure to pivot to their main talking points.

I received a thoughtful response to that post and you can find it on this site.  The question was a good one:  what, exactly, should we ask our representatives to do?

Sometimes the answer may be clear, such as when there is a specific bill that funds a project or something.  But in those cases, it is already too late and everyone will look at it through whatever preconceived notions they bring to the table.

A couple of years ago I was part of a group convened by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center to examine infrastructure issues and help chart a path forward.  The report got a lot of attention, including being held in the air by President Obama at an infrastructure event.  The Miller Center then convened a group two months ago to look at the issue and discuss the answer to the question posed by the commenter on my blog essentially.  Turns out, it is a tough nut to crack.  And perhaps nowhere more so than on the airport side.

If you wait till an authorization bill comes to the floor, it is too late.  If you call your congressman two years before, what exactly do you ask for?

Here is my attempt to answer that.

What people like the person who commented on my blog, and so many others, ought to do is constantly tell their elected and appointed leaders how important infrastructure is to their businesses, their ability to create jobs and to the quality of their lives.  This is not a sexy or silver bullet-type answer.  But what is missing is a steady drumbeat of people making sure their leaders know how important infrastructure is to the lives of the people they represent.  They need to talk about the road, the train, the mass transit, the airport.  Tell them that they recognize those things are economic engines.  You might live in a wonderful place and have a wonderful workforce.  If your community were a car then those things would be the body of the hot red sports car.  But infrastructure is the engine.  Without the engine, the hot looking car can’t run.

And, when there are occasions when economic opportunity was lost because of a lack of infrastructure, tell that story too.  Whether it was congestion or the lack of some form of infrastructure itself, our leaders need to hear these things.

Our leaders often do not understand this, not because they can’t figure it out, but because too many people take infrastructure for granted until there is some sort of catastrophic problem.  Our leaders hear all the time about health care and taxes and education and all those things.  Almost everyone thinks those things can be made better in some fashion.  Our leaders do not often hear about infrastructure in the same way.

I said it is even tougher for airports and here is why.  When you drive, you will run over a pothole or a piece of rough road occasionally.  That won’t happen on a runway though.  So people are lulled into thinking everything is ok.  If there are delays there is always someone else to blame, probably air traffic control.  No one thinks a runway is going to crack open and swallow a plane.  And that is part of the challenge.  And that is why we need to find people throughout society, throughout the economy, willing to tell the story of the importance of infrastructure to the economic and social health of our society.

So, we need to create that drumbeat out there, and we need to find drummers.  The critical role of infrastructure needs to be part of the discussion.  We do not just trade goods and services because of trade agreements or tax policy, though those things play a role.  The goods and/or services need to be shipped some place using harbors or airports.  We get through our daily lives and all we have to do not just because we have a car, but because we have roads to drive on that connect us to where we want to go.  We do not just fly someplace to do business or visit family because the Wright Brothers invented the plane. We do it because we have airports and airways that connect us to where the business and family are.

As I said in the last post, so many infrastructure discussions miss the point, and I have been as guilty of that as anyone at times.

So, my answer to the commenter is to grab a set of drumsticks and help begin this drumbeat.  Make sure the press and the politicians hear it.  And then when it is time to ask them to vote for some specific bill they won’t have to ask you to explain why.

GOP Candidates Avoid Direct Infrastructure Answers

I must admit I have watched very little of the Republican presidential debates thus far.  From what I hear they have not been terribly entertaining so I guess I haven’t missed much.  That decision seemed to be verified the other night when during a timeout while watching the Saints-Lions playoff game, I flipped over to the debate and they were discussing…..contraception.  Really?!?!

Well, a little later the game started to get out of hand and I flipped back and caught a question on….infrastructure!  YES!  So I listened, hopefully.

What I got instead, was a series of answers repeating the candidates’ basic economic talking points “jobs, lower taxes, less regulation, etc.”  Former Speaker Newt Gingrich did address the actual question for a few moments, but otherwise it didn’t happen. They drifted off into other things and the questioner did nothing to bring it back.

I don’t want to pick on the candidates, they are doing what is best for their campaigns, and frankly Democrats do it too.  I DO sort of want to pick on the questioner who asked a question and did little to bring the discussion back to infrastructure.

Here’s the problem, as I see it:  Politicians of both parties seem to see infrastructure as simply an excuse to talk about whatever their pet issue might be.  They may see it as an excuse to swerve into taxes and regulation as the debaters did the other night.  Sometimes, they see it as a way to talk about how many jobs a project might create, which happens on both sides though perhaps more often on the Democratic side.

"Rather than understand the need to invest in infrastructure, the U.S. government actually stands in the way of airports and local communities who want and need to finance infrastructure."

Don’t get me wrong, the jobs that are created by the project itself are very important.  And the tax and regulatory issues are important ones.  But the real purpose of transportation infrastructure is to move people and products to destinations and markets.  That is how you build a competitive society, how you build an economy that can grow.  You don’t lay pavement just to create a job that day.  You lay it to move goods and people for years and decades to come; to build a long-term competitive economy.

That kind of talk is totally absent in our national infrastructure discussion.  I don’t think the Chinese or the Emiratis, for example, are putting transportation projects in place because they want to reduce the unemployment rate.  They do it because they know their futures as competitive nations depend on it.

To be fair, that’s what we did in this country when we built our system of airports and when we built the interstate highway system.  Some have declined to accept the comparison to what is happening overseas, saying they are just catching up in those places to what we have already done.  But it is that kind of complacency that helped bury the steel industry when others were modernizing factories and technology and our industry was just relying on trade restrictions and dumping petitions to protect itself.  We do not want to go down that road.

How we stack up does matter, as I argued in San Diego at our annual conference.  But we will never get there as long as our political leaders, of both parties, use infrastructure as an excuse to veer into partisan talking points on taxes or jobs or whatever.  We need to tell it like it is, tell the truth about WHY we build infrastructure, and then act accordingly.