I went to the Senate Banking committee's hearing on national infrastructure the other day to see Michael Bloomberg (mayor of NYC), Shirley Franklin (mayor of Atlanta), John Peyton (mayor of Jacksonville) and Mark Funkhouser (mayor of Kansas City) give testimony.
Senator Dodd (former presidential candidate) in his opening remarks affirmed his support for a national infrastructure bank that would be an independent institution which ranks and funds projects on their merits. All the witnesses, and especially Bloomberg, expressed their support for such an infrastructure bank, emphasizing the need to fund infrastructure projects on merit.
This seems like a common problem that needs to be addressed, and one that in the current system of national infrastructure funding is certainly not. Accountability and a system meritocracy for the infrastructure projects that are funded by the federal government is virtually non-existent. In the current system, most infrastructure projects are funded through earmarks - projects particular to certain constituencies that are added solely for political reasons. The main argument for an infrastructure bank, besides the increased funding for infrastructure that it would represent, is that it would be an independent commission not privy to political whims.
The proposed infrastructure bank has been compared to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which I think is an apt comparison - a federal agency that is nevertheless not subjective to the political process. The infrastructure bank would be different, however, in that it would work in close conjunction with Congress in securing funding, but outside of funding (which it could also receive from other sources, such as user fees and puplic-private partnerships), it would be independent.
Along the same lines, Bloomberg and Funkhouser complained about the vision-less-ness of the nation's infrastructure program (or lack thereof). Bloomberg recommended a national commission, similar to the one proposed by Representative Blumenauer in his testimony to the House of Representatives, that would lay out a national vision for infrastructure and make funding recommendations. This, like an infrastructure bank, would provide independence from the political process. One proposal I've heard is that the funding proposals from such a commission would need to be voted down by 3/5 of Congress, providing additional insularity from politicization.
None of these proposals will come to fruition without political initiative, however. What was mentioned by Bloomberg was the "unsexiness" of infrastructure funding, and the disadvantage it receieves from that. This is true: Mayor Funkhouser talked of the $2.3 billion needed to fix Kansas City's sewage system, which emits 6 billion gallons of sewage into nearby lakes and rivers due to deficiencies. Nobody, however big the problem may be, wants to talk about sewage, or even crumbling roads and bridges for that matter. It is encouraging, however, that Congress, and the nation, seem to finally be taking notice - I expect substantial progress on the infrastructure front to be made in 2009, especially if we get a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president (although, to the Republicans' credit, all major infrastructure proposals in Congress to date have been largely bipartisan).