In Stimulus Debate, a Plea to Seize Opportunity to Fix Infrastructure

As debate moves to tax cuts, officials and experts call for a strategy for public-works spending.

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As the debate over President-elect Barack Obama's fiscal stimulus begins to shift toward the question of tax breaks, some government officials, including Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, are trying to keep the focus on fixing the nation's infrastructure.

The current political and economic situation is ideal for tackling the decades-old problem of America's crumbling infrastructure, Rendell said at the Brookings Institution today. But he and other officials emphasized that the problem can't be fixed merely through the stimulus package or by picking projects helter-skelter.

"This is not the time to just do business as usual and throw money at the states," Rendell says. "But is it time to put down markers like 'no pork'? Yes, it is."

One of the major problems with trying to fix America's infrastructure in the past has been the lack of an overarching, national strategy, says Bruce Katz, vice president and director of Brookings's Metropolitan Policy Program.

Policies are highly compartmentalized, both in terms of locality and industry. For example, he says, the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't link its aviation, rail, transit, and passenger rail systems, leading to waste and overlap.

In order to make policy more coherent, Katz and Robert Puentes, director of Brookings's Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, have set out a list of recommendations for the new administration. They include creating a national commission for project oversight, coordinating various offices on their efforts to meet infrastructural goals, and establishing a federal bank to provide money for projects with nationwide impact.

Another difficulty, Katz and others say, is that national and state legislatures decide on allocating money for infrastructural projects.

"Because political considerations drive disbursements, most funding is spread like peanut butter on a slice of bread," Katz says wryly. "We treat every part of this country as if it is exactly the same, rather than trying to advance national priorities."