Rebuilding America

Posted Dec. 11, 2008, at 7:07 p.m.

President-elect Barack Obama is wise to focus the next economic stimulus package on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. Such targeted expenditures will have the dual benefits of creating jobs and giving taxpayers tangible benefits for their investment. This approach is far superior to the $600 individual stimulus checks issued by the federal government earlier this year, which likely were used to pay off lingering bills or to buy electronic entertainment equipment at big-box stores.

Mr. Obama has called his proposal the “single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s.” When President Eisenhower led the effort to build the interstate highway system, the initiative was not prompted by an economic meltdown, but it had serious economic components.

President Eisenhower helped sell the huge investment to a skeptical American public by tying the highway system to national security. The proposed 41,000-mile interstate highway grid was dubbed the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways,” ostensibly designed to move military equipment and personnel efficiently.

But rather than move missiles and men, the system boosted domestic trade by making it easier for businesses to develop larger markets for goods. No longer did it take the better part of a day for a truck to travel from Bangor to Boston.

Mass transportation systems on roads, rail and water as well as port infrastructure and energy delivery systems are also part of the Obama plan.

And since this is the 21st century, virtual highways are also part of the picture. Maine Gov. John Baldacci and other governors have talked to the president-elect about the importance of expanding broadband Internet networks into economically impoverished areas as part of the infrastructure investment. Web-dependent businesses will not consider locating in places like Maine, even though it scores high in quality of life measures, without adequate Web transmission capacity.

Mr. Obama was also wise to seek the advice of the nation’s governors as he crafts the next steps in his plan to revive the moribund economy. Governors must balance their state budgets each year and don’t have the luxury of deficit spending, so they are more in tune with the public needs, as opposed to public “wants.” Governors are also closer to the people affected by cuts in social service programs.

And since states have lost federal highway and other funds in recent years, the infrastructure stimulus package would ease the burden of balancing state budgets by allowing states to allocate less to road work.

More than merely slapping a coat of asphalt on crumbling roads, the infrastructure plan is not a “make-work” program, but a way to set the stage for work. Seeing the federal deficit continue to spike through two wars, bank bailouts and a likely auto manufacturer loan program is not easy to stomach. That’s why taxpayers must be assured of getting real return on government spending. The infrastructure plan meets that goal.

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