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Take long-term infrastructure planning out of the hands of politicians

The Baltimore Sun

The recent collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis highlights a stark reality: Many of today's societal problems and opportunities seem beyond the scope and consciousness of both voters and elected officials.

This may be because our democratic system focuses politicians' attention on the time frame marked by the next election, which virtually precludes discussion of long-term projects.

The time has come to set up a national planning authority, one that features top officials appointed for long terms. Their long-term planning decisions for critical maintenance and for vital additional infrastructure should carry significant authority to ensure that projects of national interest get started and get completed in a timely fashion. These decisions should not be subject to the whims of current elections and bipartisan politics.

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System presents a useful model for setting up a planning authority. Like the Fed board, a planning board representing various districts of the country could be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Congress could allocate funds in large blocks, with the planning board members - insulated from politics by long terms in office - making all decisions about specific projects.

The long-term projects such an authority would undertake are related to both the desperately needed, routine preventive maintenance on much of the nation's existing infrastructure and the just-as-important problem of overused, overcrowded roads and bridges that are stretched well beyond the loads they were designed to handle.

Unfortunately, ongoing maintenance never creates the headlines or the accolades of new construction. Therefore, politicians and business leaders are reluctant to invest their time, energy and money in these rather mundane efforts. However, as the old Fram oil filter commercial use to say, "You can either pay me now or you can pay me later." Apparently we, as a society, are paying later (which is now) when you consider many of the numerous recent infrastructure failures. In addition to the I-35 bridge collapse, these include several recent large-scale electrical outages, the levees in New Orleans, maintenance-related oil refinery accidents, and numerous large, catastrophic New York City steam line ruptures. And let us not forget our interstate highways, many of them crumbling to the point of near-impassability.

In the Mid-Atlantic region, the electrical transmission grid is severely congested and, without significant, long-term upgrades, will become even more so as older plants closer to urban areas are retired. There are newer, cleaner, more efficient and more cost-effective plants west of Maryland, but the power they produce will have to be carried east via the overly congested transmission system. All of this is exacerbated further by the anticipated future population growth in the regions surrounding the Chesapeake Bay.

Therefore, it is apparent that the time required to build large transmission lines - including public hearings, the approval process and actual construction - may be too long to prevent brownouts and rotating blackouts. Making this matter even more challenging for our region, much of the needed transmission infrastructure is beyond Maryland's borders.

A national planning authority would be a potentially powerful organization. Therefore, creating it should be done with considerable and careful thought. Many existing states' rights would have to be given up, but all too often today's projects of national interest (such as interstate highways and electrical utility facilities) must by necessity cross state boundaries.

Some oversight from elected officials would be necessary to ensure the best decisions were made and that appropriate budgetary constraints were abided by. As is always the case, the devil is in the details. But, as noted earlier, such institutions are not without precedent.

The sad fact is that many of our society's infrastructure-related problems and opportunities are not being properly addressed by the current system. The time for new thinking is at hand.

E. Tylor Claggett teaches in the Department of Economics and Finance in the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University. His e-mail is etclaggett@salisbury.edu.

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