Philanthropy's Role in Improving U.S. Infrastructure

Rising gasoline prices have forced people to rely more heavily on public transportation, but Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, doesn't think that's necessarily a bad thing. In her opinion, it's an opportunity to rethink the nation's system of transportation, looking especially at economic and environmental concerns.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Fixing the nation's failing dams, updating outdated electrical grids, strengthening America's bridges or overhauling its transportation system is, of course, a massive undertaking that will require massive amounts of money and some deep thought. But Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, points out that work on the nation's infrastructure could be a real economic boost.

Ms. JUDITH RODIN (President, Rockefeller Foundation): So, when you think about how are we going to create win-wins in this country given that we have finite resources, this is one that feels to many, many people like it's a real potential win-win. These are jobs that can't be outsourced; they have to be done physically in the country and there's pent-up demand.

CORNISH: The Rockefeller Foundation has invested in the 2050 Forum. It's devoted to finding new ideas to deal with America's infrastructure.

Ms. RODIN: When then-President Jefferson's Treasury Secretary Gallatin in 1808 created the first of these plans, really thinking about the nation's infrastructure, he viewed this as an obligation of the federal government. He said it was too important to leave to private individuals. I think in 200 years we've evolved to a very significant notion of public investment playing a role but also creating potential for private investment.

These are politically charged issues; governors are viewing their state turnpike systems as potentially privatizable, and we're seeing some evidence of that occurring. And it may be politically acceptable; it may not. But many of our current large investment firms now have infrastructure investment funds for third-world countries. So, why don't we take some of those funds and invest them in America?

CORNISH: Now, you talked about the idea of private entities getting involved in the funding and investment of infrastructure. But in the past you've also talked about the issue of philanthropy and the role of nonprofits. Can you talk a little bit about what is the role of philanthropy when it comes to the future of our infrastructure?

Ms. RODIN: I think here philanthropy's role, as it is in so many areas, is not to be a direct funder of the work. The needs are really in the billions and trillions of dollars. And no philanthropy has those resources. Philanthropy's role is to bring together stakeholders from across these various sectors to invest in new policy solutions, to bring these issues before the general public and to take the longer view.

We're not focused on the election next year, we're not focused on the low-risk solution, we're not focused on the next quarter's earnings, so we're in a very significant and really opportune position to seed the debate, to fund the new ideas and to bring diverse stakeholders together around these issues. And I think this is one where there is a tipping point. And so often foundations take these tipping point moments, elevate public attention to these critical issues and galvanize change.

CORNISH: Now, the Rockefeller Foundation has provided funding for the America 2050 Forum, dealing with infrastructure. What's your vision for America in that year? What do you hope things will look like in 2050?

Ms. RODIN: Well, take some examples from other countries. Even today we don't have to go very far to think about what some alternatives to what we currently have. If you are in Shanghai and you leave Shanghai and go to the Shanghai Airport, you're taking a maglev train. It takes you 20 minutes, you arrive in an extraordinary new terminal and then you get off at Kennedy. You have to ask yourself, you know, who's got it right here?

Or a colleague of mine was just telling me on the way over here that he just returned from Paris, and Paris has now - everywhere in Paris you find, maybe every 300 meters or so, huge bike stations. You charge a bike on a pass for about a Euro a day on your credit card, and people are biking all over. You leave the bike at the destination 'cause there's a lockable bike rack there. You don't keep it while you're at your 1:30 meeting or your 1:30 lunch, because you know when you come out you know there will be another one. And all over, people are biking as an alternative to driving. We're thinking about alternatives to congestion.

Seventy-eight billion dollars in 2005, which was the last time for which we have data, was spent in traffic congestion in the United States. We have got to do better.

CORNISH: Judith Rodin is president of the nonprofit Rockefeller Foundation. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. RODIN: Well, it was a pleasure to be with you.

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