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LaHood, Rendell make bipartisan push to revitalize America’s infrastructure

January 9, 2014 at 12:11 PM EDT
A bipartisan group of former lawmakers is making a push to revitalize America's roads and bridges. Judy Woodruff talks to the co-chairs of Building America's Future, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, about the advantages of investing in the nation's infrastructure.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a conversation about rebuilding the country’s roads, bridges and other critical components, as seen through the lens of American competitiveness.

Infrastructure investment rarely captures national attention, until there’s a tragic failure or accident, such as the 160-foot chunk of Washington State’s Skagit River Bridge that suddenly gave way in May, the deadly 2007 collapse of the 1-35 bridge spanning the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and the historic failure of New Orleans’ levee system during 2005′s Hurricane Katrina.

But some experts say the problems are exacerbated by a lack of investment that can leave the nation’s transportation, communications, and energy networks outdated and unreliable.

Still, there’s been more investment in the years since the recession began, the most prominent being President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as it was called, allocated $150 billion to a wide array of public works projects. While the stimulus fund has expired now, the president has continued to press Congress for more spending.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have still got too many roads that are in disrepair, too many bridges that aren’t safe. We don’t have to accept that for America. We can do better. We can build better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But some lawmakers, like House Speaker John Boehner, resist spending more unless it’s paid for.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: It’s easy to go out there and be Santa Claus and talk about all these things you want to give away, but, at some point, somebody’s got to pay the bill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a bipartisan advocacy group, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, and now former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, is pushing policy actions to address infrastructure needs.

Among their recommendations: passing a long-term transportation bill; establishing a national infrastructure bank to fund freight and other industrial projects; and consideration of gas or mileage fees to fund building and maintenance.

Still, the challenge ahead looms large.

We look at the realities and real questions surrounding these projects with two people who are making the case for them. As we just heard, they are both with the group Building America’s Future, former Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, and former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican and longtime congressman who was just today named co-chair of the group.

Welcome to you both.

RAY LAHOOD, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation: Thank you, Judy.

ED RENDELL, former Pennsylvania governor: Nice to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Governor Rendell, to you first.

What mainly is the problem you want to fix?

ED RENDELL: We want to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure.

We did a report two years ago that said falling behind, falling apart. Our infrastructure is literally falling part. You see it as bridges collapse, pipelines burst. It’s old. It hasn’t been revitalized in a long time. We need it for public safety, to stay economically competitive. And it’s the best jobs program in America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Help us understand, Secretary LaHood, why the American people should care about this.

RAY LAHOOD: America has always been number one in infrastructure.

When we built Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the interstate system over 50 years, we put friends and neighbors to work. This is an opportunity to stimulate the economy, to get people back to work, and to continue to try to be number one.

We’re not number one in infrastructure anymore. We’re number 16. We’re way behind. And we could put a lot of people to work, improve our economy, and improve our infrastructure if we get behind a big, bold plan to fix up America’s roads and bridges and other infrastructure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Governor Rendell, whose responsibility is it to fix all this? And how much — what is the price tag?

ED RENDELL: Well, it’s all of our responsibility. It’s the federal government, it’s state government, it’s local government, and it’s the private sector.

The sin of it, Judy, there’s estimates — Felix Rohatyn, the great financial wizard, estimates that there is almost $300 billion in European and Chinese money willing to come in and invest in rebuilding the American infrastructure, if we can create the right vehicle.

It’s a huge problem. The American Society of Civil Engineers says we have got to spend in the next eight years $3.6 trillion, and in the pipeline is $1.6 trillion. So we have a $2 trillion deficit. Where is the money going to come from? It’s going to come from a lot of sources, including the private sector.

We have to do something about the gas tax or a vehicle miles travel tax. And we have got to be realistic about that. We have got to create an infrastructure bank that can do credit enhancements that will allow more money to flow into the system. We have got to do it all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Secretary LaHood, why can’t the private sector and state and local governments do most of this? Why does the federal government have to have a big role?

RAY LAHOOD: We need somebody to provide the lead. There is not enough money in the states or in any city to do what they have to do in terms of building roads, building bridges.

These are costly projects. We have always been the leader at the national level, until more recently. You need somebody to take the lead to provide the kind of resources that then can attract private dollars, as Governor Rendell said, also state dollars, also local dollars.

Somebody has to be the leader in this. And it has to be a national leader. At one time, we were a national leader, and now we’re not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Governor Rendell, what about the — you hear this argument all the time, that once the federal government gets involved in a big project, you see cost overruns, you see waste, you see things just that were supposed to go in an orderly way end up going off-track and taking a whole lot longer and costing a lot more.

ED RENDELL: Well, it doesn’t have to happen.

First of all, MAP-21, the recent transportation bill, did change some of the regulations and speed up some of the regulatory framework. That’s a plus. But, secondly, if you look at stimulus, stimulus got a bad name in general. But the infrastructure part of stimulus worked very, very well.

Pennsylvania got a billion dollars for its roads and highways. We created 24,600-plus jobs with that billion dollars. We repaired bridges and roads. Thanks to stimulus and money that I put in, state money I put in, we went from having 6,600 structurally deficient bridges to 4,500.

But think of that. That’s huge progress, but we still have 4,500 structurally deficient bridges, any one of which can collapse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You hear these numbers, and taking what you’re saying in good faith, still, Secretary LaHood, I was reading today some critics are saying, well, a lot of this is hyped. And they were going back and pointing to examples that both your organization, Building America’s Future, has used, other organizations have used, and they’re saying it’s not really as bad as they say it is.

RAY LAHOOD: Judy, America is one big pothole.

We went from number one to number 16 in infrastructure and improving infrastructure. Anybody who lives in a city or a state knows their roads are crumbling. There are potholes. There are deficient bridges. And in the country, people get this, and have passed referendums time and time again to fix up their roads and bridges.

We need some of that vision here in Washington to say, we need to do the same thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much are you asking for from the federal government, Governor Rendell?

And also how can you ask the Congress — expect the Congress to appropriate this kind of money, when they are already looking at significant requests for extending unemployment benefits, doing something about food stamps, for example, doing something about I think you could say essential needs like that? How can you then turn around and say, well, we really need to put the money into highways?

ED RENDELL: Well, Judy, this is essential.

It’s essential for public safety. How many more bridges do we have to have collapse on us? It’s essential for the economy. Tell me any other venture where we can produce literally hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs that are middle-class jobs, $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 a year?

I will give you an example of what the secretary was talking about. There are — as you know, the Panama Canal is being deepened and these supertankers are coming through. When they unload, they create longshoreman jobs and trucker jobs that are, again, well-paying jobs.

But only two of America’s 12 Eastern Shore — Eastern Shore ports are ready to receive them because we haven’t done proper dredging. So those ships are going to go to Canada. And the jobs are going to be produced in Canada, not the U.S.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about — Secretary LaHood, we heard Speaker Boehner say this is all well and good, but we have got to find a way to pay for it. Where is the money going to come from?

RAY LAHOOD: We need to raise the gas tax, Judy, which has been the pot of money that has been the stimulus to help states and cities do these big projects.

It hasn’t been raised since 1993. We need to raise it. I say raise it 10 cents a gallon, index it, so that we have the kind of resources here that can be matched with private, state and local dollars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you think the American people are ready to support something like that?

ED RENDELL: Well, it’s interesting.

They vote consistently to approve referendums on money for a bridge, money for revitalizing the port. The difference here is, they don’t have confidence in the government. But the government has got to spell out how many jobs will be created, where the major projects are going to be and what the upside is.

If they do that, look, no business in this country has grown successful without investing in its own growth. Same goes for us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, the organization is Building America’s Future, bipartisan, with us, Republican former Secretary Ray LaHood, former Governor Ed Rendell.

We thank you.

RAY LAHOOD: Thank you, Judy.