The Tricky Part of Obama’s Infrastructure Plans

Barack Obama has some ambitious plans for upgrading the U.S.’s infrastructure:

President-elect Barack Obama said he’ll make the “single largest new investment” in roads, bridges and public buildings since the Eisenhower Administration to lift the sagging economy and create jobs.

Obama, in his weekly radio speech today, said his plan to create or preserve 2.5 million jobs will also include making public buildings more energy efficient, repairing schools and modernizing health care with electronic medical records.

“We won’t just throw money at the problem,” he said. “We’ll measure progress by the reforms we make and the results we achieve — by the jobs we create, by the energy we save, by whether America is more competitive in the world.”

But this road–and I’m going to concentrate on the transportation infrastructure–is longer than it looks.

  • The general financial situation of the Federal government, coupled with that of the states, will make allocating funds to this difficult, even in a “stimulus mode.”  The general trend in American governmental budget allocation has been towards entitlements, and reversing that habit won’t be easy.  For the most part the states don’t have the option of deficit spending.
  • All transportation infrastructure projects have an environmental impact, and getting through both the regulatory maze and the political opposition of the environmentalists will be time consuming.  I discussed this during the campaign.
  • Most state DOT’s have projects “on the shelf” ready to go for Federal funding.  But there will be a delay in finalising the designs and getting through aforementioned regulatory processes.
  • If he tries to push too hard, the waste of money will increase.  Any time a large flow of money comes from the government all at once, oversight deteriorates and more money ends up in places it wasn’t intended to.  The financial bailout is a good example of this.
  • The construction industry will be delighted with the increase in activity.  But expanding the labour force will take time.  In the 1930’s when FDR and Huey Long were out expanding the infrastructure, much construction labour was unskilled and people with no prior experience could be absorbed into the workforce much for easily.  On today’s techno-mechanised, safety conscious job site, people (especially in the heavy construction segment, which builds transportation projects) needs to be trained and know what they’re doing.  And that, with the native labour force, is easier said than done.

Although upgrading our infrastructure is badly overdue, it’s not a quick road to reinflating our economy.  And in a political system notoriously short of patience, Barack Obama will discover that his electorate will become restless very quickly.

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