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In push for infrastructure spending, Obama sings an old refrain

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35W bridge
The re-built I-35W bridge spans the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minn. in this 2012 file photo.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Pushing for his economic program, President Barack Obama declared last week that "We know strong infrastructure is a key ingredient to a thriving economy."  He sounded a call for new infrastructure projects and investments across the country.

It's not a new theme for Obama. He has been calling for increased spending on roads and bridges since the days of his early stimulus program to save the economy. In a recent piece in the Fiscal Times, writers Eric Pianin and Brianna Ehley suggest that he has little to show for years of rhetoric.

 "Yet the president and his allies on Capitol Hill, in state government and in the construction industry have been swimming upstream over the past five years," they write. "Experts warn that without a significant increase in spending in this area, the nation will suffer long-term economic hardships and the safety and dependability of bridges and roads will continue to be in question."

As the country's leadership tries to make do with limited resources, what's the best use of our infrastructure dollar? And is public spending on infrastructure a sound way to boost the economy?


•  Encouraging U.S. Infrastructure Investment
The United States has huge unpaid bills coming due for its infrastructure. A generation of investments in world-class infrastructure in the mid-twentieth century is now reaching the end of its useful life. Cost estimates for modernizing run as high as $2.3 trillion or more over the next decade for transportation, energy, and water infrastructure. Yet public infrastructure investment, at 2.4 percent of GDP, is half what it was fifty years ago. (Scott Thomasson, for the Council on Foreign Relations)

• U.S. infrastructure spending has plummeted since 2008
States and local governments are the biggest part of the story here. They've historically provided the vast majority of spending for roads, highways and bridges, and they've been pulling back on spending since 2008 as a result of the economic downturn and requirements to balance their budgets. California's transportation spending declined by 31 percent from 2007 to 2009, for instance. Texas's fell by 8 percent. At the same time, Congress hasn't filled in the gap. There was a one-time $46 billion infusion of transportation spending in the stimulus bill. But that wasn't enough to offset the  drop at the state and local level. Meanwhile, the most recent highway bill out of Congress kept federal spending at current levels rather than increasing it. (Wonkblog, Washington Post)

• Infrastructure Gap? Look at the Facts. We Spend More Than Europe
To convince a wary public to spend more with trillion dollar deficits, big government advocates must gin up a national infrastructure emergency that threatens safety, jobs, and well being. Public spending lobbyists are ready to oblige with D+ report cards for  "aging and unreliable" roads, bridges, and ports. Big government advocates substitute scare tactics for the facts that our infrastructure is as good as Europe's and that we spend more than the European Union on public investment. (Forbes)