There was a palpable sense of disbelief in the air at Wednesday’s gathering of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance.
On Tuesday, the transportation advocates saw some of their biggest boosters, including U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, chair of the House transportation committee, go down to defeat as Republicans took control of the U.S. House and the Minnesota Legislature.
“We’re all certainly in mourning,” a somewhat serious Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Alliance, said at the event.
“How do you spell tsunami?” asked Dennis McGrann, a lobbyist with the firm of Lockridge, Grindal & Lauen who represents various Minnesota transportation interests in Washington. “There has been a huge sea change in Washington.”
Oberstar, who lost to Republican newcomer Chip Cravaack, has his imprint on a $500 billion, six-year federal transportation package that would significantly increase federal spending on roads, bridges and mass transit.
And at the state level, voters took power away from the party that famously overrode Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto to secure passage of a $6.6 billion transportation funding package in 2008.
Still, transportation lobbyists who spoke at the event described the political upheaval in Washington and St. Paul as an opportunity to reach out to new leaders and continue their push for more transportation investment.
“This is a new class,” lobbyist Gary Botzek said. “It’s our job to educate and inform these new students.”
Oh yes, it is.
Although many in the transportation industry have the idea that the Democrats are more favourable to transportation (read: infrastructure) spending, the reality is that neither party has as strong of a commitment to transportation infrastructure–to say nothing of any other kind of infrastructure–improvement.
The Republicans reflexively call infrastructure spending “government spending” and oppose it. The exception they always carve out is the military; perhaps if DOD was the lead agency rather than the FHWA, they would feel differently. (They are on Corps of Engineers projects). This was one of the major disappointments of George W. Bush: for all of his willingness to deficit spend, he short shrifted infrastructure improvements.
The Democrats, for all of their talk of economic progress, prefer wealth transfer than infrastructure investment. That’s one reason why the stimulus was something of a letdown for transportation spending. Another was the aggressive lobbying of feminist groups to direct money to groups that proportionally employed more women. This contributed to the “he-session” and is an insult to all of the fine women engineers and other female transportation professionals. And then, of course, there are all of the ’60’s radicals left over who think that primitive living is the answer for all of us.
The blunt truth of the matter is that every “bridge to nowhere” has a greater contribution to the general productivity of our economy and nation than the vast majority of government entitlements. The sooner both parties understand the connection between infrastructure improvement and the productivity of our economy, the better.