Big build

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We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money.” –President-elect Obama, in his radio address Dec. 8.

OK – here it comes. Here comes the moment few thought even remotely possible a few scant months ago – a massive $500 billion, maybe even $1 trillion, infrastructure investment program slated to kick off sometime after President-elect Obama takes office next year. Needless to say, a lot of roads and bridges we thought might never get built – along with repairs and upgrades made to existing highways – are suddenly poised to become reality.

It’s all part of a as-yet vague but VERY broad and pricey infrastructure upgrade across the U.S., including not just roads and bridges but schools, broadband service for the Internet, etc.

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“We will launch a massive effort to make public buildings more energy-efficient,” said President-elect Obama in videotaped comments earlier this week. “Our government now pays the highest energy bill in the world. We need to change that. We need to upgrade our federal buildings by replacing old heating systems and installing efficient light bulbs. That won’t just save you, the American taxpayer, billions of dollars each year. It will put people back to work.”

His economic recovery plan is also going to launch “the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen,” he said. Broadening the “information superhighway” comes next as in Obama’s view it is “unacceptable” that the U.S. ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. This economic recovery plan also proposes to help modernize the U.S. health care system – making sure that every doctor’s office and hospital in this country is using cutting edge technology and electronic medical records so that we can cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes, and help save billions of dollars each year, he said.

[You can view President-elect Obama’s entire speech describing this plan below.]

Whew! Is that a tall order or what? Altogether, Obama expects this massive infrastructure outlay to create 2 million to 2.5 million jobs – about 1.8 million just for the road and bridge construction projects alone. And needless to say, more than a few groups – but most especially state government officials – are salivating like proverbial Pavlov dogs over the thought of this much federal money being doled out.

“With the latest grim economic news, now more than ever, we need this investment in infrastructure to help create and retain jobs and lay the foundation for future economic growth,” noted Mayor Michael Bloomberg (D-NY), Governor Ed Rendell (D-PA) and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA), in a joint statement. As the co-chairs of the Building America’s Future” coalition, they’ve been pushing for almost a year to get this kind of big money package in the pipeline – and their Christmas wish is coming true.

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“Even before the recession, states and localities were unable to finance the billions of dollars of critically important infrastructure projects that are otherwise ‘shovel ready,’ [so] we applaud President-elect Obama for focusing on the crisis that is facing America’s economy and for setting a new bold course to rebuild America’s infrastructure and make it energy-efficient,” they said.

In a nod to transparency and accountability, all three claim elected officials must be prudent with these funds. “While time is of the essence, as elected officials we strongly agree that we must ensure all infrastructure dollars are invested wisely and produce real results,” they said.

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“States and localities should first invest in projects that maximize creating jobs quickly, such as repair and maintenance projects, and invest in projects that enhance our energy efficiency and independence,” they noted. “They should also report back how the funds were allocated and how many jobs were created or retained so that we can better track our return on investment. We strongly support a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ requirement to ensure that new infrastructure funds will be used to put Americans to work immediately and not languish unspent or tied up in red tape.”

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John Townsend, spokesman for AAA, also stressed “accountability” in his group’s support of this massive plan. “This federal investment is long overdue and will have the combined benefits of stimulating the economy in the short-term, while creating a firm foundation for the nation's long-term economic growth through the improved mobility of its citizens and movement of the goods and services on which they rely,” he said.

“[But] to ensure public support, it is critical taxpayer money is directed to the most important transportation needs and is invested wisely in programs and projects that will have a positive impact on local communities and the broader transportation network essential for our nation's economic vitality,” Townsend added. “A transparent process must be in place to ensure that this stimulus investment goes towards projects that produce measurable transportation improvements for motorists and other users of the transportation system.”

The repeated use of words such as “transparency” and “wisely” about this massive infrastructure plan is the big red flag in all of this – the long-established use of such funds for the pet projects of lawmakers, such as the infamous “bridge to nowhere” cooked up in Alaska several years ago. That boondoggle looked to spend almost $1 billion to build a highway span linking a small island with 50 residents or so to the Alaskan mainland. Reading between the lines of the statements above, you know that fear other such wasteful projects might get funded through this massive building program.

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President-elect Obama, for one, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he’s well aware of this concern. “You know, the days of just pork coming out of Congress as a strategy, those days are over. We’re not simply going to write a bunch of checks,” he said on the TV news program. “What we need to do is examine: What are the projects where we're going to get the most bang for the buck? How are we going to make sure taxpayers are protected?”

There’s also the small issue of how we, as a nation, will pay for all of this. This infrastructure overhaul and expansion is long overdue, certainly, but that doesn’t mean we get it for free. The federal deficit is on track to exceed $11 trillion BEFORE this plan gets the green light, meaning a hell of a lot of bills are going to come due for us taxpayers. This infrastructure plan is a good start, but we need to figure out how we’ll pay for it – and all the other red ink we’ve piled up.

That’s going to be the real trick as the “big build” starts shifting into high gear next year.

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