Governors Want Federal Funds For Infrastructure

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President-elect Barack Obama meets Tuesday in Philadelphia with the National Governors Association. The governors plan to ask Obama for $136 billion in infrastructure funds to stimulate the economy. Pennsylvania has the highest number of structurally deficient bridges in the country.


Today President-elect Obama is meeting with many of the nation's governors at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The President-elect is likely to repeat his call for an economic stimulus plan that includes more federal spending on the nation's infrastructure - things like roads and bridges and schools. Do not expect the governors to say no to this. Governors including Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell favor it. But as Joel Rose reports, there's debate over how much that would actually help the economy.

JOEL ROSE: I'm standing under an elevated section of Interstate 95 a few miles north of Independence Hall. In March, state inspectors discovered a major crack in one of the giant concrete pillars that hold up this stretch of highway. No one was injured, but the road was closed for two days for repairs. Since then, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has come back here to talk about fixing the state's crumbling roads and bridges.

Governor ED RENDELL (Democrat, Pennsylvania): We have a legitimate crisis with these bridges. They're not sexy. People can't see them. Almost nobody driving on I-95 saw the crack in that pier. Most of you did. And it was pretty darn frightening. And we have got to get about doing this.

ROSE: This state's infrastructure problems don't end with its highways. Pennsylvania has more structurally deficient bridges than any state in the country. Perhaps that's why Rendell is looking to Washington for help.

Governor RENDELL: No matter how hard a state applies its efforts and its resources to this problem, it's never going to make enough of a dent without significantly and radically increased federal help.

ROSE: Rendell isn't the only governor to reach the same conclusion. California's Arnold Schwarzenegger says his state needs to spend half a trillion dollars on infrastructure in the next 20 years. Schwarzenegger stood in front of a Los Angeles freeway in April as he announced the state would get $200 million in federal transit funds.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): As we move forward in infrastructure and rebuilding California, if it is the schools, rebuilding the levees, affordable housing, or our transportation infrastructure, we need the federal government as our partner.

ROSE: And the federal government may be ready to help. President-elect Barack Obama says he wants to make infrastructure projects part of an economic stimulus plan to create more than two million new jobs in the next two years. Mr. Obama repeated that call during his weekly radio address last month.

(Soundbite of radio address)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: These aren't just steps to pull ourselves out of this immediate crisis. These are the long-term investments in our economic future that have been ignored for far too long.

ROSE: Economists are divided over how much new federal infrastructure spending will help the U.S. economy in the short run. Jared Bernstein at the labor-friendly Economic Policy Institute in Washington says a carefully targeted spending plan of about $100 billion could yield quick results.

Dr. JARED BERNSTEIN (Senior Economist, Economic Policy Institute): Basically anything that's kind of under way or poised and ready to go, but starved for resources - and there's a lots of those projects out in the states right now - these are projects that can get going quickly, create economic activity and good jobs.

ROSE: But others are more skeptical. Ron Utt is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, which takes a more conservative fiscal view. He says projects that are really new take a long time to get started, while projects that are really ready to go are probably close to getting funding anyway.

Dr. RON UTT (Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Economic Policy Studies, The Heritage Foundation): I'm not sure that any of these new projects reflect anything that wouldn't otherwise have been done to begin with. In the end, you may get no net increase in infrastructure spending and not necessarily any net increase in jobs.

ROSE: Utt says a major federal spending spree might simply shift the burden of paying for the nation's infrastructure away from the states and toward the federal government. And it's hard to picture the 40 or so governors gathering today in Philadelphia arguing against that. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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