Stan Katz: U.S. not lagging behind
In Bob Berwyn’s column of Aug. 24, he invited comments on the best way to finance needed transportation investment. I will comment on that, but first I want to take issue with the general tone of the column.
The US is not “lagging behind” in any sense of the word. From the building of the Erie Canal through the construction of the transcontinental railroad, to the Brooklyn, George Washington, Golden Gate, and Verrazano bridges, this country has almost always been the LEADER in large-scale transportation projects. We built the first really extensive system of “national highways” in the 1920s and 1930s (all those roads with “US” as their initials), and then made them even better with the Interstate System in the 1950s. Almost every bridge built in the U.S. in the mid-1900s was the world’s largest at the time it was built.
What you are seeing now is that other countries are finally grasping the importance of what the U.S. has done, and they are the ones who are now “catching up” with bridges and tunnels that could/should have been built years ago, while our older system has simply reached the point where it needs repairs. To call the U.S. “laggard” in transportation is to fail to grasp the history of our successes, and to make these other countries seem forward-thinking when in fact they LOST a half-century and more to the U.S. economic engine. With the exception of a single small paragraph about “irony,” the tone of your article misses that point entirely.
Regardless, the question of how we should finance the renewal of our many aging systems remains. My choice is to create a major transportation infrastructure fund, financed by both federal and state bonds. Transportation improvements benefit the country for many decades at a time, and so long-term bonds are an appropriate means for financing current projects – they are paid off over several decades, and therefore cost the current taxpayer minimally. The current general objection to bond financing, i.e., that it is somehow “mortgaging our future,” doesn’t apply to projects which are designed to provide benefits into that future; schools are built using bond financing for this same reason.
Financing transportation improvements with long-term bonds is a sensible use of debt financing; had so many states not chosen in the last few years to finance current deficits with bonds, we would not have the current anathema to the use of bonds which currently exists in many states.
In any event, it was an interesting and well-written column, despite my objections to Berwyn’s characterization of the U.S. being a “laggard” in the area of national transportation. I am curious to see what kind of responses you get to your question of “how to finance” these needed investments.
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