Republicans' singular focus on curbing government spending has transformed the discussion on transportation over the last year. Earmarks, which once drove the entire surface transportation authorization process, are now a thing of the past. Only recently have congressional leaders agreed that cutting infrastructure spending, as originally proposed in the House, is a bad idea. There were even some questions last fall about whether an extension of the federal gas tax was appropriate under the House's conservative fiscal guidelines. (Both Republicans and Democrats determined that the current 18.4 cent-per-gallon tax is OK, but raising it is a no-no.)
President Obama asked for $200 billion from war savings to be directed toward highways and bridges in his State of the Union address. The proposal is a response to House Republicans' idea to pay for a six-year highway bill with new domestic drilling, according to a senior administration official. Both the White House and Republican proposals are political stunts, as I wrote last week, and they are not likely to advance the broader conversation about government infrastructure investment.
Meanwhile, the business community is at its wits end trying to break through the phobia on spending. American Road and Transportation Builders Association President Pete Ruane said Congress needs to get out of the habit of labeling all spending in the same way: Some investments are better than others, and infrastructure has a lot of virtues. HNTB Corp. has heard enough questions from its own executives that it invited former House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., and Washington Post columnist George Will to speak to them about it. (I was given an exclusive interview with the two men to discuss the same issue.)
Is there such a thing as good spending and bad spending? If so, where does infrastructure fit in on that scale? Did Obama make it clear that he sees infrastructure as "good" spending in his State of the Union speech? Or did he miss an opportunity? Is there any way in the current political atmosphere to actually increase spending for infrastructure?