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Leonard Emphasizes Need for Federal Leadership at Forum

July/August Volume 35, Number 7/8


At a conference entitled “The Future of the City,” which was held last month under the sponsorship of the Atlantic, mayors, keynote speakers, and experts—including ASCE’s president, Blaine D. Leonard, P.E., D.GE, F.ASCE—held forth on such topics as sustainable development, transportation, and infrastructure. Leonard emphasized the need for federal leadership in stimulating infrastructure funding. The forum was held in Washington, D.C., June 25–26 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

Leonard was part of a four-person panel discussion on June 26 whose theme was “The Future of Infrastructure Funding: How Should We Pay for Needed Improvements?” The other panelists were Marcia Hale, the president of the coalition Building America’s Future; Robert Inman, the Richard King Mellon Professor of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; and Robert Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative. Clive Crook, a senior editor for the Atlantic, served as mediator.

Crook asked Leonard if the current economic climate was conducive to the up-front cost of infrastructure investment. Leonard replied, “If we had the political will and leadership, I really think it is there.” The Society’s president expressed the view that, if voters understand the details of a transportation project and its cost, they are generally willing to support a tax increase to finance it. Hale agreed, pointing out that a recent proposal to raise the sales tax by half a percentage point to improve mass transit and highways in Los Angeles passed by nearly 68 percent. Inman also concurred, stating, “Families and businesses in particular will support a tax increase as long as there is an economic return in some visible product. I think infrastructure is one area where you can get a return.”

To help voters understand the importance of infrastructure funding, Leonard argued for a clear national vision, something akin to Eisenhower’s plan to create an interstate highway system. “[Eisenhower] said that we were going to participate together in developing the plan, that we were going to set some standards so it was consistent, and that we were going to provide some funding. Where would our interstate highway system be today if he had not done that?” he asked.

ASCE’s president also argued that metropolitan areas can apply the same approach to their regions, not just to the cities within those regions. A region’s infrastructure, including its transportation, water, and storm-water systems, “has to be treated as a system,” he contended. Leonard provided several examples of regional infrastructure being treated as a system. His home, the Salt Lake City metropolitan area, he explained, was able to effectively integrate light-rail, heavy rail, and highway construction and improvements throughout the region, not just in the urban core.

Because the federal government has not elaborated a national vision for such beneficial transportation projects as high-speed rail, Leonard argued, many people believe that the $8 billion allocated to high-speed rail in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is sufficient to implement projects nationwide. “The California high-speed rail system by itself is approximately thirty to fifty billion dollars. [Funding from the act] is going to get us started. It is a great process. But do we have a national plan that says, ‘Here’s how we are going to develop high-speed rail in the United States’? Do we have the federal leadership to actually pull together and get it done?” he asked.

Crook asked Leonard if infrastructure could be used more efficiently and if that was a “big deal.” “It is a big deal and it has to be,” Leonard responded, noting that several years ago Texas a&m University’s Texas Transportation Institute concluded that the nation would not be able to build its way out of traffic congestion. As a result, attention shifted to intelligent transportation systems as a means of mitigating congestion, as seen, for example, in variable-message signs. Leonard stated that information technology could also benefit other facets of infrastructure, including energy, water, and storm-water systems. “There is a real solution there, and there is a lot of engineering going on in that arena today,” he asserted.

The panel also discussed various sources of funding for infrastructure. Inman, for example, described tax increment financing, in which such infrastructure projects as schools would be paid for by levying a tax on the increased value of the homes within a school district’s boundaries.

Crook’s final question was, “Do you think that the national priorities are hopelessly out of kilter?” Inman responded that such projects as a high-speed rail line linking Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York City would need to be planned by the federal government because it would pass through several states. Yet, he continued, “the biggest problem to my mind on many of these projects both for stopping projects and for spending money on infrastructure is the highly decentralized structure of federal decision making.” As Inman explained, what is important to many federal lawmakers is solely what is important “in [their] neck of the woods.” Leonard expressed the view that, to mitigate the counterproductive effects of this decentralization, a federal infrastructure plan that included an overarching framework should be implemented. As he put it, “We need federal leadership to help us...put together goals and standards and then turn us loose to meet those goals.”  

Brett Hansen