Since approximately last spring, it's been difficult to drive more than 10 miles on virtually any interstate in the United States without running into a road crew. This is in large part the result of a huge transportation bill (the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, familiarly known as TEA-21) that passed Congress last year. TEA-21 allocated $218 billion in federal dollars for spending on highway transportation, which (according to the House Transportation Committee) represented a 43 percent increase over the previous funding level. More spending means more road repair, and more road repair means more road crews, and more road crews means more congestion on interstates (at least for the short term).
It's all worth it, of course, if the nation's infrastructure is finally being repaired. Remember the "infrastructure crisis" so heavily touted by candidate Clinton in 1992? Grizzled policy jocks will recall its origins in a slender-but-passionate volume called America in Ruins, first published in 1981 by Pat Choate, who subsequently became famous as Ross Perot's 1996 vice-presidential running mate (and who lately is reported to have been urging Pat Buchanan to run on the Reform Party ticket). Although Choate's main interest these days is trade (he's a big protectionist, or, if you prefer, "fair trade" advocate), he still follows infrastructure issues. Indeed, it was Choate who popularized the term "infrastructure." (Before that, people tended to call it "roads and bridges.") Chatterbox phoned Choate to ask whether the infrastructure crisis is still with us.
Choate's answer is ... yes and no. "What has happened with the transportation bills that have gotten through [is], they've gotten the money to take the existinginterstate and get it into shape, and that's what you're seeing," Choate told me. But "we need to expand the interstate from about 42,000 miles to about 100,000 miles ... The capacity design for the interstate system was exceeded by the late 1970s. And it remains so." (Perhaps this is why the road repairs being done on interstates today are causing a seemingly unprecedented amount of highway congestion.) Choate says the condition of federal roads that aren't interstates (e.g., U.S. 50) still needs to be brought up to interstate standards.
City investments in infrastructure have greatly improved since the publication of America in Ruins, Choate says: "Most cities have come around to put into place capital budgets, where they'll make regular infrastructure investments. And the good times in the '80s and '90s have allowed cities and counties to go in and build and try to keep up with their demands ... By and large, they're doing a pretty good job."
Bridges are still in pretty lousy shape, Choate says: "About a quarter of the bridges have restrictions on them because they have not been maintained and repaired." And state roads pose a growing maintenance problem, because there's less federal money around to repair them than there used to be.
One reason infrastructure problems persist may be the spending inefficiencies associated with Rep. Bud Shuster's (R-Pa.) chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee. A series of filings to the House Ethics Committee (for the best stuff, click here and here) by Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project, a Nader-affiliated watchdog group, documents that Shuster has rather boldly linked transportation spending priorities to campaign contributions and the hiring of a lobbyist named Ann Eppard, a former Shuster aide who is also Shuster's Washington fund-raiser. Roll Call reported in 1996 that Shuster's re-election campaign was headquartered in Eppard's home office. Here's an example of how it works, as reported that year in Roll Call:
Desperate to link two interstate highways together and relieve traffic through their historic business district, town leaders here did the only thing they believed would get the attention of House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa).
They held a fundraiser for his re-election.
"We were trying to be a squeaky wheel. We did everything we could think of to get the attentions of the powers who make these decisions," said Carolyn Barranca, a Frederick businesswoman who helped to organize last week's event ...
Like the Frederick fundraiser and helicopter tour, at most stops Shuster mixes an official inspection of transportation needs with events benefiting his campaign war chest ...
[In Frederick,] people talked quite bluntly about Shuster's visit. "It's the same reason you go to visit your mother-in-law," said a Frederick businessman who didn't want his name used. "You don't like to do it, but it keeps things smooth."
Eppard, who is currently under indictment for failing to disclose that she received $230,000 from a lobbyist and his clients while she was on Shuster's staff, may also have violated the pathetically weak law that attempts to prevent former congressional staffers from directly lobbying their former bosses for one measly year after they leave the congressional payroll, according to today's Roll Call. The House Ethics committee has been investigating Shuster and Eppard since 1996, and is expected to release its findings sometime in the year 2525 ...