U.S. Needs A Long-Term Infrastructure Plan, Ray LaHood says

Originally published on February 12, 2018 8:49 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's infrastructure week again. President Trump's administration has repeatedly sought to highlight ideas to funnel money into new roads, bridges and more. The White House has just as often blotted out infrastructure ideas with other news. But now, this week, the administration says it really will release a plan, which we will discuss with Ray LaHood. He was a Republican congressman from Illinois and then transportation secretary under President Obama. Mr. LaHood, welcome back to the program.

RAY LAHOOD: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So the president's notion here, as best we can tell, is some federal money. But mostly, he wants to get state and private money on the line. Is that going to work?

LAHOOD: Probably is not going to work, Steve - that idea just probably won't work because the states and local governments don't have any money. The proof of that is that 25 states over the last three years have raised their own gas tax because they haven't had any money from the federal government. And many of those states are Republican states controlled by Republicans.

And the reason we have an interstate system in America that was built over the last 50 years is because our national government made investments. The reason that Europe and Asia have some of the best rail systems is because the national government made a commitment. And that's where the rubber really hits the road when it comes to having a national vision.

INSKEEP: The rubber hits the road. Come on, Mr. Secretary. That's just too much of a pun. But anyway...

LAHOOD: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...Anyway, so you're underlining one of the debates here. What percentage of any infrastructure plan should be paid for by the federal government? And in past decades, it's sometimes been up to 90 percent paid by the feds. Let me ask a couple of other big questions here, Mr. Secretary, as Congress begins to discuss what they might actually pass. Not so long ago, I was in Chattanooga, Tenn. I was walking across a bridge. It looked beautiful across the Tennessee River. And I realized the bridge had been built in 1890.

You know, you build things to last 100 years or 200 years or even longer. And now the Environmental Protection Agency is warning that many bridges in this country could be affected by climate change. As the climate changes, as water levels change, should any infrastructure plan now take climate change into account even though the president is a skeptic that it's happening at all?

LAHOOD: Well, of course it should. We have 60,000 structurally deficient bridges, Steve. If you look at the tunnels that deliver people from New Jersey to New York and back and forth in that region, those tunnels are deteriorating because of all of the salt water that has eroded that infrastructure. And that's true all over America. The bridge that leads to Arlington cemetery, the Memorial Bridge from Washington to Virginia, is about ready to fall down because of the deterioration that's been caused by the environment over a long period of time. And that's one of the top priorities to be fixed.

INSKEEP: That makes me feel good as someone who's driven over that bridge a bunch.

LAHOOD: Exactly.

INSKEEP: What ultimately is at stake for the country's development? You mentioned the development of China. Is the United States keeping up?

LAHOOD: Absolutely not. We - at one time, we were No. 1 in infrastructure. We're now rated No. 28. Every transportation infrastructure group gives infrastructure in America a grade of D. And the reason, Steve, is we are not making the investments. We haven't made the investments. The Highway Trust Fund is broke. We really have not provided the kind of incentives at the federal level that have allowed the partnerships between the states and the federal government to rebuild our infrastructure.

INSKEEP: Secretary LaHood, thank you very much.

LAHOOD: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Ray LaHood was a Republican congressman from Illinois and then secretary of transportation under President Obama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.