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Rendell urges business group to back 'essential' public works projects

Executive BranchSuez CanalPort of BaltimoreTimothy M. KaineEd Rendell

Infrastructure could be the least sexy word in the English language, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell acknowledged to his audience Monday morning, but "it is essential to everything we do."

While roads, rails and the electric grid — just to name a few — made the United States the greatest economic power in the world, those systems are no longer robust, Rendell said. Paltry amounts of money have been targeted for improvements to shipping channels and rail lines. Massive water main breaks have become a common occurrence as maintenance backlogs grow. The level of gridlock in major metropolitan areas continues to rise.

"We have let our infrastructure crumble because we're not willing to invest," Rendell told members of the Greater Baltimore Committee at its transportation summit. "We're told we don't have the money. We do have the money. It's just a question of priorities. What do we want to do?"

In 2008, Rendell joined with former Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Virginia governor, now senator-elect, Tim Kaine in calling for a new federal transportation policy to focus on mass transit and repairing deteriorating infrastructure. At that time, U.S. infrastructure was ranked No. 6 in the world by the World Economic Forum.

The latest ranking released in September showed the nation had dropped to No. 16.

"We're getting our tails whipped," Rendell said.

The audience sat silently as the former mayor of Philadelphia and chairman of the Democratic National Committee continued his litany of woes.

This year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's infrastructure a grade of D-minus and estimated it would take $2.2 trillion over the next decade to raise the grade to a C-plus. But the nation spends about 2 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure, roughly half of what it did during the Kennedy administration, according to U.S. government figures. China spends 9 percent.

"We lack the will," Rendell said. "We talk about what things cost, but we never talk about the cost of inaction."

Locally, the engineers society gave Maryland infrastructure a C-minus, noting that "the majority of the roadways in the state network are reaching an age that requires major rehabilitation or reconstruction." Yet earlier this year, Maryland lawmakers rejected an O'Malley administration proposal to raise the state gas tax from the 1992 level of 23.5 cents per gallon to pay for transportation improvements.

Rendell said its time for the business community to educate voters about the need for funding so that they will give their elected officials "a permission slip" to approve expenditures.

"In 2010, the most conservative voting year in our history, 64 percent of all infrastructure referendums in the nation were approved. Why? Because people could see what was needed," Rendell said.

Other speakers at the transportation summit noted that despite the funding squeeze, Maryland entities such as the port of Baltimore and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport have managed to stay competitive while living within their financial means.

The port has thrived by having a diversity of imports and exports and a mixture of public and private terminals, said John Martin, president of a maritime and airport consulting firm.

In addition to being ready to handle the larger cargo ships from Asia that will pass through the expanded Panama Canal, Baltimore is well positioned to attract ships from India and Sri Lanka that use the Suez Canal, he said.

The airport is undergoing a $100 million renovation of the oldest part of its terminal and upgrading and repaving runways, said Paul Wiedefeld, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration. BWI is paying for the project using revenue from gate leases and landing fees, parking fees and rents from vendors.

"Anything we do has to be very cost-effective for the airlines," Wiedefeld said. "We do things when there's a strong, strong business need."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Executive BranchSuez CanalPort of BaltimoreTimothy M. KaineEd Rendell
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