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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rebuilding Roads, Rails, and Runways

Air Date: Week of

The 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis sparked much debate over our crumbling infrastructure. (Credit Wikimedia)

President Obama unveiled a sweeping new plan to create jobs and improve America’s roads and rails. But not everyone agrees with the hefty price tag or how he plans to pay for it. Host Jeff Young speaks with editor of the Infrastructurist about the political possibility and environmental implications of the proposal.


YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. The economy’s teetering and the election is nearing. President Obama is betting big on infrastructure.

OBAMA: I am announcing a new plan for rebuilding and modernizing America's roads and rails and runways for the long-term. I want America to have the best infrastructure in the world!

YOUNG: The President wants 50 billion dollars fast to build out and repair thousands of miles of roads and rails. Melissa Lafsky tells us that infrastructure is sorely in need of a little TLC. She edits the blog ‘The Infrastructurist.’ And, Lafsky says the president’s plan has big implications for the environment, as well.

LAFSKY: One of the interesting aspects about this proposal is that it’s integrating rail and air travel into the federal highway and service transportation program. So, traditionally, ever since the 50’s, the U.S. has had the federal highway transportation program which has been obviously very focused on highways.

And, so, what we’re doing now is basically integrating larger rail projects like high-speed rail, as well as, aviation projects and putting it all under the same umbrella as a federal transportation program. So, what that could do is essentially, it could drastically impact our urban planning, our fuel emissions. I mean, trains are electric, they run on electricity. So, our carbon output as a nation, if we all shifted more towards rapid transit, could really make an impact on our environmental status in this country.

YOUNG: So, a lot of focus here on rails but what about runways? And airports? What are the environmental implications of what the president is talking about there?

LAFSKY: Well there could be vast environmental implications, particularly with NexGen, which is the modernized air traffic control system that routes planes via satellite. And it can have a dramatic impact on the fuel efficiency of flights, particularly by streamlining when planes take off and land. And, just from a passenger perspective, it could dramatically decrease delays, but we could cut an enormous amount of fuel by installing this system and having it as our nationwide air traffic control system.

The 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis sparked much debate over our crumbling infrastructure. (Credit Wikimedia)

YOUNG: You know, one thing that I find a little puzzling about this, is we’re talking about, in some cases, maintenance and repair, which isn’t that the kind of stuff we’d normally do via the transportation bill? And, by the way, what ever happened to that? Wasn’t Congress supposed to re-authorize that highway-spending bill?

LAFSKY: Well, you’ve really hit the crux of the matter. The transportation bill has been on life support for about a year. It expired and it has been getting these short-term extensions, because basically, if it’s allowed to completely expire, then that’s it. The spigot is been turned off, and there is no federal transportation funding for maintenance of roads, bridges, tunnels and more. Now, the reason that a new transportation bill has not been passed is because there is so much contention in Congress about how to fund it.

So, Obama has come up along and put forth some very interesting proposals, but the issue still remains…how will it be paid for?

YOUNG: And there’s a bit of an environmental twist here as well because, as I understand it, he wants to pay for some of this infrastructure investment by-- yoink-- taking away some subsidies from the oil and gas industry.

LAFSKY: Yes, eliminating tax breaks for oil and gas. And, that would cover, according to what has been released so far, that would cover the first 50 billion. So, there would be this first kick-start of around 50 billion dollars just to get us going on the roads, rails and runways. And, then the rest of the funding, it’s still a bit up in the air where it would come from. And, there’s also the fact that oil and gas companies, they have a pretty powerful lobbying group, and they have a lot of clout in Congress. And, they are certainly unhappy at the idea of paying higher taxes that will go directly towards funding this proposal. So, it’s definitely going to be a very contentious topic.

YOUNG: So, this looks iffy, on the hill. The transportation bill is, in your words, on life-support. So, what’s your hunch? Will these things the president’s proposing here come to pass?

LAFSKY: I think maybe the full extent of the funding may not happen. The 50 billion dollars of initial investment? That might be pretty tough to get through. It is a bit of our political reality. what do voters vote on? They vote on gas taxes, they vote on, ‘what have you done for me lately?’ And, there is a lack of larger vision in our political climate, but I’m optimistic about it.

YOUNG: Melissa Lafsky is editor-in-chief of the Infrastructurist dot com. Thanks very much!

LAFSKY: Thank you!

[MUSIC: David Byrne/Brian Eno “I Feel My Stuff” from Everything That Happens Will Happen (Todomundo Records 2010)]



"> President Obama gave his state of the infrastructure speech to an eager crowd of Union members at a Labor Day rally in Milwaukee, WI.


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