The Obama Watch

Obama’s Infrastructure Charade

Demanding Republican funding for projects that will never be "shovel ready."

By 6.25.12

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Jeffrey R. Liebman, a former Obama administration official, authored a prominent article in the June 22 issue of the Wall Street Journal lambasting Republicans in Congress for blocking President Obama's plans to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure projects to create jobs for the unemployed. As he writes, "Congress has failed to act on the president's plan to put construction workers back on the job rebuilding our roads, bridges, and airports."

This is a charade. The day is long past when spending on public works and infrastructure can pull the economy out of recession in a timely way. By the time such spending is ready to come on line, the recession is likely to be long past.

To see why this is so, one need look no further than to the Keystone XL Project, the proposed 1800-mile pipeline project designed to carry Canadian crude oil to various refining and distribution hubs in the United States. The Obama administration has blocked this ambitious infrastructure project, even though it would promote American energy independence and create an estimated 20,000 new jobs, with additional income and employment for businesses along the pipeline route.

The pipeline is now embroiled in an administrative controversy over whether or not it will cause harm to the environment. The State Department completed a review last year that cleared the pipeline to go forward, but this decision was contested by environmental groups that claimed it would cause environmental damage and would accelerate global warming by encouraging the consumption of more oil. The Obama administration is now reviewing the matter once again, promising to hand down a decision in 2013, conveniently after the presidential election. If the Obama administration was really serious about "infrastructure jobs," then it would have approved the pipeline last year when the first environmental review was completed.

What is true of the Keystone Pipeline is likely to be true of other ambitious public works projects. Even where there is political agreement that a project should go forward, the extensive review and permitting process now in play means that it can take several years from the time a project is conceived to the time it can actually begin. President Obama is well aware of this, as he discovered to his dismay a few years ago that stimulus funds could not be put to immediate use because there were few "shovel ready" projects on which to spend it. The regulatory burden is one of the main reasons why America's infrastructure is in disrepair or out of date, why highways are clogged, flights are always behind schedule, and bridges are overdue for renovation or replacement. 

For more than forty years Democrats have been at war with themselves, on the one hand demanding funds for public works projects and on the other passing regulations to make it impossible for those projects to go forward. Today activists can draw upon a welter of laws and regulations to block the construction of roads, bridges, dams, and airports, from the Clean Air Act to the Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act to the Coral Reef Conservation Act. The National Environmental Policy Act (1970) created a regulatory process under which environmental assessments and environmental impact statements must be prepared and approved for federally funded infrastructure projects. The Keystone Pipeline has been held up because federal authorities and environmental groups dispute the accuracy of the environmental impact statement that cleared the project to go forward. Under the law, they can take their objections to court; if they find a friendly judge, they can hold up a project for years. Often a project can be effectively killed if activists can manage to hold it up long enough. This is what they hope to accomplish with the Keystone pipeline.

Anyone familiar with large public works project can cite many examples of projects that were held up or cancelled due to regulatory roadblocks. Officials in New York State have been working on plans for more than a decade to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River, and are still nowhere near overcoming the regulatory hurdles that still stand in the way of the project.

Every redesign of the project requires another set of environmental reviews. It may take another decade before work can even begin on a new bridge, even though in the 1950s it took just four years from the time the current bridge was conceived to the time it was opened.

Liberals often point to FDR's public works programs as a successful model for what might be accomplished today in the construction and repair of roads and bridges. They ignore the fact that they have put in place monumental hurdles to public works projects that FDR never imagined. Until President Obama and his supporters address that reality, their talk about public works and infrastructure projects can be written off as a political charade.

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About the Author

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of Camelot and the Cultural Rev­olution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (Encounter Books).