Sandy Raises Concerns For Nation's Infrastructure

The cleanup effort is underway after superstorm Sandy, and questions are cropping up about the country's aging infrastructure. Henry Gomez reports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. He put his questions to President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney well before the storm hit. He speaks with host Michel Martin, as part of NPR's "Solve This" series.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we will hear about some billboards that went up in a few neighborhoods in a few states warning against voter fraud. The people who paid for them said they were just meant as a public service, but critics say they were really just trying to keep legitimate voters from the polls who tend to support Democrats. We'll talk more about that controversy in just a few minutes.

But first we want to have another in a series of conversations we've been having about important issues that are or should be talked about during this election, and now we want to talk about some of the issues raised by the Superstorm Sandy. As you probably know, there were massive power outages. Mass transit systems in some dense urban areas are essentially crippled, and all of that has raised troubling questions about the country's infrastructure.

But some experts were asking those questions even before that storm hit. As part of our Solve This series leading up to the election, where we are looking at what the presidential candidates have been saying about dealing with issues like this, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's political writer, Henry Gomez, interviewed both President Obama and former Massachusetts governor - the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, about the infrastructure issues facing the country. And he is with us now. Henry Gomez, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

HENRY GOMEZ: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, we've obviously been very focused on electricity and energy issues, but that's only one. When you talk about the top infrastructure issues facing the country, what are you talking about?

GOMEZ: Well, we're talking about roads and bridges and waterways and really the main ways to transport goods and get things in and out of America's major metropolitan areas, such as Cleveland, where we're at right now. And, you know, this is infrastructure that was built to last for 50, 100 years, and its expiration date has passed.

And we're looking at, you know, large urban areas here in Ohio - Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati - as the anchors of a metropolitan area, as the anchor of the suburbs and the exurbs that surround them. And if goods can't travel in and out of the city, then the entire metropolitan area is in danger of collapse.

MARTIN: How did the presidential candidates view infrastructure challenges like this? I mean have both of them talked about it? Do they both see that this is a problem?

GOMEZ: They both can see that it's a problem. It doesn't get talked about much. And that's - when we interviewed both the candidates on the same day, actually, about a month ago, we decided wanted to throw one question to each of them that would be the same that would deal with an issue that's not getting a lot of coverage. And that's why we picked infrastructure.

And you know, as I kind of cast it later, no one campaigns against infrastructure but nobody really campaigns on it either. And you know, it's been an issue that Democrats and Republicans agree on, but in the last year in particular, they haven't been able to work out anything under the specter of a hotly contested presidential election.

MARTIN: Well, one of the points that you've made in your coverage is that it looked for a time as though President Obama was going to make infrastructure and repairing the country's infrastructure a signature issue. I just want to play a short clip of the president speaking last year next to the Key Bridge, which connects Washington D.C. to Virginia. He was talking about the infrastructure piece of the American Jobs Act and trying to get that through Congress. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are deficient roads and there are deficient bridges like this all across the country. Our highways are clogged with traffic. Our railroads are no longer the fastest and most efficient in the world. Our air traffic congestion is the worst in the world. And we've got to do something about this because our businesses and our entire economy are already paying for it.

MARTIN: OK. So let's set the politics aside for a second, which we obviously can't do for very long. But tell us, what was the substance of the president's argument and idea?

GOMEZ: Well, the substance is there's a trade group of engineers - the Society of Civil Engineers - and they estimate that the nation's infrastructure gap exceeds $2 trillion. This is the cost. This is how much it would cost to bring all of America's infrastructure up to date and make it safe and current with modern times and modern use. Over $2 trillion.

So, yes, the need is there. And you hear people on both sides agreeing that the need is there. The other substances - the president has proposed an infrastructure bank which would, I think, be seeded initially under his plan with $10 billion of federal money. And this money would then be, you know, parceled out or used to guarantee loans or used to make loans, write loans, to specific projects across the country.

And, you know, I think the thought is this would grow over time but at this point in time when the president proposed it, he was, you know, looking for some bipartisanship and I think he started with a small figure.

MARTIN: Well, let me just stop you for a minute there.

GOMEZ: Sure.

MARTIN: Is there a model for this now? Is it something like the Millennium Challenge Corporation which works overseas? And that's one of the things that the Millennium Challenge Corporation is focused on, is countries with good governance who can identify big projects where they need some help and there's some sort of either a public and private match or there's a government to government match where the U.S. government puts up some money and that other country's government or some other entity within that government puts up some money.

Is it something like that? Or is it something like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Is there an existing model for what the president has in mind?

GOMEZ: You know, I don't know enough about some of these overseas models to make that comparison, but I think that it's open to flexibility and creativity and ideas from, you know, state and local government leaders in terms of what their needs are. To sort of contrast the infrastructure bank idea with something that the Republicans favor, the Republicans do favor that public-private partnership model.

Here in Ohio, in the Cleveland area, we have a bridge - the Innerbelt Bridge which connects into downtown Cleveland. It's falling apart. It needs to be replaced. And finding the capital to replace that bridge has been an issue. So the Republican governor of the state, John Kasich, has gone in search of a private partner who would build - replace the bridge upfront and then, you know, take his money on the back end plus interest from the state of Ohio.

This is a $322 million project. This is an approach that Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, favors and has talked about in the limited talk he's given on infrastructure.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the candidates' plans to solve the nation's infrastructure issues. I'm speaking with the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Henry Gomez, who interviewed both of the major party candidates about their plans to address the nation's infrastructure problem. You know, in light of the recent storm, a lot of people are turning back to something that the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said last year at a Republican primary debate.

CNN's John King asked Governor Romney if states should take on more of the role currently handled by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and this is what he had to say about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better. Instead of thinking in the federal budget what we should cut, we should ask ourselves the opposite question: What should we keep?

We should take all of what we're doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we're doing that we don't have to do? And those things we've got to stop doing.

MARTIN: And obviously, in the wake of this current storm, which has affected, you know, a significant, you know, portion of the East Coast, people are looking back at that and saying, what does that really mean in a situation like this? But how does that fit into what Mr. Romney has been saying about sort of infrastructure all along? Is that pretty much the approach that he would take, that if you can go to the private sector first, that's what you should do?

GOMEZ: Well, yeah. And it's - I mean, to broaden it out, it's the philosophical difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in America. You know, Mitt Romney and Republicans often try to find solutions at state, local and private sector levels. And on the Democratic side we're talking about a federal infrastructure bank that's been proposed by President Obama.

So, yeah. It fits right in with, you know, Governor Romney's, you know, core philosophies, although I think, in recent days, he's softened his stance on FEMA when he's been asked about it. I mean, you have to remember, I know it's hard to divorce politics from this, but back in the Republican primary, he was running more to the right because he was in a contest for base Republican votes and so a lot of his - you know, a lot of his opinions and viewpoints at that time probably came off a bit more conservative than they are now.

MARTIN: What do you know, Henry, about how voters are addressing this question? Do you have any sense of whether, in a swing state like Ohio, this is one of the things that voters think about when they're deciding whom to vote for?

GOMEZ: They don't think about it from the macro, you know, lens that we're looking at it through. They look at it as jobs, and if a candidate presents it as jobs, you know, fixing a bridge or, you know, building, you know, a new highway or, you know, expanding an airport or, you know, doing a project at a - you know, at a river port or a seaport - those are things that, you know, if you talk about in terms of how many jobs they'll add, construction jobs and jobs down the road, that's an issue that can resonate with voters, but they're not - you know, infrastructure itself is a pretty clunky word and it doesn't roll off the tongue easily if you say it five times fast.

So - no - it's not a bumper sticker issue and it's not one that people are, you know, determining their votes on, but if you turn it back to jobs, then sure.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, one of the other interesting things that you wrote about in your coverage of this issue, is the whole urban-suburban divide. You know, a number of political analysts have argued that the Republicans have really shifted their campaign strategy to the suburban areas that - you note that Mitt Romney has done very little campaigning in kind of downtown urban, you know, areas. And the - so the argument here is that, really, one of the reasons why, politically, that there isn't a lot of traction on this is that there is a sense that the suburbs and the urban areas have different views of this issue, whereas other people, like, sort of, the experts say, well, actually, that's not possible because its infrastructure links the downtown urban areas, which tend to be job centers, with the suburban areas, which tend to be residential areas.

Did you detect that in your reporting? Do people in the suburbs and the people in the urban areas have very different views of this?

GOMEZ: Well, sure, they do. And I think the key to that is informing voters and citizens and, you know, the bedroom communities out in exurbia - these are people that wake up, you know, on the far-flung areas of a metro area and drive into downtown to work. And their jobs and their livelihood and their, you know, economic well-being is, in many cases, tied to that core urban area.

So - but I do agree with the point that you raised, that the - you know, you have - the Republican Party is looking for its votes out in suburbia and exurbia and so, when it comes to asking them what their infrastructure priorities would be, they're not as specific or finite when it comes to addressing a particular bridge in the heart of a city or a port in Cleveland, for example. They're talking more in the big picture, all over, in the suburbs, in the cities and rural areas.

MARTIN: OK. All right.

GOMEZ: So - yeah - they want it all. They want it all.

MARTIN: Henry Gomez is a political reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He's been covering the whole question of the nation's infrastructure gap and he was kind enough to join us from member station WCPN in Cleveland.

Henry Gomez, thank you.

GOMEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, you might have seen them. Billboards warning that voter fraud is a serious crime punishable by fines and prison time. Backers say they're just meant as a public service, but others ask why this service was only available in certain neighborhoods.

CASSANDRA COLLIER-WILLIAMS: Anything that can stop someone from voting is a problem, because we want everybody to vote, and then may the best person win.

MARTIN: We get the latest on the billboard controversy. That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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