“Not since 1954 when President Eisenhower began the interstate system has there been a grand plan for even one mode of transportation, let alone a national strategic infrastructure policy.”
PT Speaks with Congressman John Mica (FL), Ranking Member: House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
PT: What are the most pressing infrastructure problems facing the country today that average American’s might not consider?
Mica: They might not think about it, but congestion is probably the biggest issue we’re dealing with from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Whether it’s highways, airports, seaports or rail, all of our infrastructure is stretched to the limit.
PT: What are the biggest roadblocks to a cohesive infrastructure policy? Are they institutional, systemic or predominately political?
Mica: It’s a combination of things. We don’t have a clear policy or set of objectives when it comes to infrastructure on a national basis. It’s done sort of piecemeal and through different jurisdictions. We’re also lacking a cohesive funding process. The third thing is the process of approval. It takes a very long time for projects to be approved, and that’s a real systemic issue.
Why is it so hard to articulate a national vision?
PT: Why is it so difficult to articulate a national vision when it comes to infrastructure?
Mica: The federal government hasn’t decided what it wants to do, or what it wants to provide in the process. Not since 1954, when President Eisenhower began the interstate system has there been a grand plan for even one mode of transportation, let alone a national strategic infrastructure policy. Right now, it’s done completely piecemeal, while our two main competitors—China Inc. and EU Inc.—are investing staggering amounts of money on infrastructure on a planned and coordinated basis.
PT: Obviously, China has a different political apparatus through which they can institute their strategic policy, but the EU has even more bureaucratic hurdles than the United States. What’s preventing us from doing more?
Mica: Well, yes, China has an extremely centralized system and they’ll just run a bulldozer over anyone who gets in their way. The EU isn’t dissimilar though. They prioritize, coordinate and build. It also creates a lot of jobs for them, so they’ve tried to speed the process up a bit to get more accomplished.
PT: So, where does the breakdown happen? Why can’t the United States articulate a clear vision?
The Federal government doesn’t know what it wants
Mica: The federal government really doesn’t know how involved it wants or needs to be. For example, in the past the federal government has participated at different levels in the interstate system, mass transit, ports and airports, but none of it is coordinated. The definition of the participation is very clouded.
Now we are seeing various schemes to deal with a lack of infrastructure and deteriorating infrastructure, but the federal government can’t really tell what its policy is right now. Let’s just take one mode: what is the federal interstate system going to look like 30, 40 years from now? Nobody has a clue. There’s not a plan. We don’t have a single high-speed rail system in the United States. We have a Soviet-style long-distance passenger service called Amtrak, which tried to take high-speed in one quarter and ended up with a complete disaster. It goes 82 miles-per-hour and they bought the wrong equipment. They closed it down for six months because they didn’t have the right brakes. The European design they chose for the cabs was mis-engineered for the American rails so they wouldn’t go around the curves without hitting other trains. It’s just a typical government operation. I joke that even the Romanians are privatizing their rail service now.
We should be moving much more freight and commodities by maritime, but our ports are inadequate. The mega-liners are coming soon, and we have only one or two ports on the east coast that can accommodate them. Freight rail moves an average of 23 miles-per-hour in the United States. Whether it’s freight, passenger, service or ports, we have no plan. Our airports are a disaster. Again, there’s no strategic plan to deal with expansion.
It’s not a very pretty picture.
PT: I’m very curious about the root of our inability to put forward a national vision. You’ve outlined the problems in great detail, but why can’t we accomplish some of the great things we’ve done in the past?
Mica: We can still do those things, but we need a plan and we need to decide who is responsible for what. Second, we need to decide how to finance it. We’re going to have to use bonding, public/private partnerships and other creative financing. Third, because the process takes so long, you have to streamline it. I have what I call my 437-day plan for progress. I chose 437 days because that was the number of days given to a contractor to replace the collapsed Minnesota bridge over I-35. I asked my staff how long it would take to build a bridge like that through the normal process, and they said 7-8 years.
The downside of ethanol
PT: Some people say that infrastructure doesn’t get a fair shake politically because “infrastructure” doesn’t vote. Would you agree?
Mica: I’m telling you though, if you talk to the members of Congress, it’s an issue that’s becoming more and more vital. Communities are clogged, the cost of doing business is rising. Gas taxes aren’t going to fix it either, because as we get more efficient cars, our revenue will only decrease. The other item that distorts the financing scheme is our encouragement of alternative fuels. When it costs you 51 cents to produce a gallon of ethanol and you lose gas tax on that, you’ve got to find a new way to finance the system.
PT: It seems like the biggest issue is still the fact that we don’t have a coherent plan though. What’s changed since the 1930s when we were able to complete the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges simultaneously in only 3-4 years?
Mica: Again, it’s all of the hoops that you have to go through. Cottage industries have been created just to do reports on these things.
PT: So, what kinds of reforms need to happen to pare down some of those institutional or bureaucratic obstacles? Where do you begin?
Mica: Well, we need a plan and a goal at the federal level, and then we need to decide who is responsible for what. We have to sort out the rules of the game, and then we need to determine a sustainable financing structure.
We need a plan
PT: Many people forget that “infrastructure” also refers to our broadband, wireless and cable networks across the country. What are we doing to keep pace in these critical areas?
Mica: These are critical areas for the future of our economy, so it wouldn’t hurt to set the goals and come up with a plan in that area as well.
PT: In your experience, do you see infrastructure policy as something that lends itself to bipartisanship?
Mica: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think it’s a partisan issue at all. It’s a national survival issue. It transcends party lines.
PT: Right. That’s why I find it so interesting that we have such a difficult time coming up with a clear strategy.
Mica: Well, I think the Bush Administration has been rather short sighted in looking at these issues. I think they’ve misjudged the situation. I’m a big private sector proponent, but this is one of the things the government has to do. If you look back at the history of this country, there’s a whole host of examples of the federal government driving the strategic infrastructure policy of the nation. I point to the example of when President Eisenhower sent his vice president, Richard Nixon to the governors’ conference at Lake George where he proposed a $1-$2 trillion interstate system when the federal budget was only $78billion. It’s pretty mind boggling to look at, but if you stop and close your eyes and ask what the interstate is going to look like in 25-30 years, nobody has a long-term vision for it.
PT: Congressman, thank you for your time.