Budget goblins needlessly scare off infrastructure spending

Tight state budgets prompt some politicians, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to cancel or put off infrastructure investments in tunnels, roads, and rail. That's shortsighted.

Today, Swiss drilling crews broke through the last bit of rock to create the world’s longest rail tunnel. When completed in 2017, the route will cut the four-hour train ride from Zurich, Switzerland, to Milan, Italy, by an hour, helping to relieve Europe’s congested highways.

Last week, New Jersey’s governor canceled a rail tunnel that would carry commuters under the Hudson River to Manhattan. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the United States, more so than many European nations. The tunnel has been 20 years in the planning, and ground has broken on the project.

But Republican Gov. Chris Christie says the state can’t afford the expected cost overruns, even though the tunnel is being called the most important current public works project in America.

The difference between the Swiss and New Jersey examples is this: One shows vision and a commitment to invest in the future, while the other shows shortsightedness.

Cost overruns are a legitimate concern, as are strained state budgets all over America. But politicians should see these financial constraints as a challenge to be overcome, not an excuse to stop building or repairing infrastructure that’s vital to America’s commerce, high standard of living, and even national security.

Sadly, some politicians are being frightened by the economic goblins of today and are running away from important infrastructure investments.

In Pennsylvania, the state legislature is ducking a plan by Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell to raise $1 billion in driver’s license, registration, and vehicle fees – as well as oil company taxes – to fund transportation infrastructure. Pennsylvania really needs $3.5 billion, according to a recent study.

In California, Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor, wants to delay the state’s bullet-train project to connect San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities. It’s financed in part by federal stimulus money from the Recovery Act.

“To say ‘now is not the time’ shows a very narrow vision,’’ Matt David, communications director for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, told The New York Times. Gubernatorial challengers in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida also question Recovery Act rail projects in their states.

Pennsylvania’s needs are more along the lines of the mundane, but necessary. California’s project shows foresight that will avoid the need to pave more highways and build more runways. Both projects create jobs and ultimately connect businesses and people so commerce can grow.

A country that built the national highway system and Hoover Dam, but which faces sagging power, transport, and water infrastructure, should not be discouraged by today’s weak economy.

The private sector can play a greater role. Witness this week’s news that Google and a New York financial firm plan to invest in a proposed $5 billion power transmission backbone along the Eastern Seaboard. The project is to carry electricity generated by offshore wind farms.

Both taxpayers and government need to think differently about infrastructure. It’s a priority investment with long-term benefits – not a cost to be perpetually put off.

States would be in a better position to make this investment if they, for instance, renegotiated burdensome, bloated pension plans for their public employees and broke the cozy relationship between elected officials and expensive unionized labor.

Taxpayers, too, must recognize that, as users of roads and other services, they have a responsibility to help pay for maintenance and future needs.The federal gasoline tax hasn’t been increased since 1993. The 18.4-cents-per-gallon tax helps fund highways and bridges.

At the state level, drivers in New Jersey pay about half what New Yorkers pay in state gasoline taxes. New Jersey’s state fund for highway improvements, which is fueled by that tax, is about to run dry. Reportedly, this is one reason why Governor Christie wants to cancel the tunnel project.

After a hue and cry about the canceled tunnel, and after a visit from President Obama’s transportation secretary, Ray LaHood (a Republican), Christie now says he’ll rethink the cancellation.

He should. But unless the rest of the nation also rethinks, America will fall further behind in the infrastructure race, while Switzerland, China, and many other countries plow ahead.

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