Let the infrastructure roll!

It's time to prime the economic pump, and local infrastructure needs are acute. But will the politics enable us to emulate China?
It's time to prime the economic pump, and local infrastructure needs are acute. But will the politics enable us to emulate China?

Spending on infrastructure — bridges, sewers, roadways — is often touted as a way out of a recession. But the argument quickly runs into the objection that most of these big projects (think Seattle's Viaduct) take forever to get the cash flowing into the system. But that may be changing. A deep recession lasts long enough to gain from infrastructure spending.

So, look to local politicians to start tying our long-stalled infrastructure projects to economic recovery. Maybe not on the level of China's just-announced $586 billion program over the next two years, but generous nonetheless. What's ready to go locally?

Sound Transit and Seattle and Bellevue Parks, thanks to voter-approved measures, will be able to keep the money flowing. Another voter-backed issue, the Pike Place Market, could also be fast-tracked. The Convention Center in Seattle is hard at work exploring plans for a doubling of its size, adding a stand-alone facility near the present one; but this one might get mired in Seattle planning process. That process will also continue to bog down plans for a new floating bridge on SR 520 and the Alaskan Way Viaduct. On the other hand, the urgency to create jobs might get at least one of those mega-projects unstuck. The floating bridge, largely because of the lobbying pressure from Microsoft, could be the first to move, perhaps with money diverted from the central waterfront project, still stalemated between the state and Seattle planners.

The China program ranges far from the usual spending on transportation, water supply, and rural electrification. It also includes massive spending on low-income housing, health, and education. Such an approach broadens the coalition and might be a good idea locally as well. House Speaker Frank Chopp, for instance, often links his approval for pet projects to increases in his pet project: low-income housing. Spending more on measures that reduce carbon emissions and help clean up Puget Sound would also make political sense.

A final reason for expecting an infrastructure boom is that these projects finesse pledges not to raise taxes, since they are bond issues paid for during the next 30 years. This might be one way for Gov. Gregoire, who always feels the need to pledge no tax increases when running, to wriggle out of the box she put herself into.

Spending on infrastructure makes a lot of sense as public policy. It creates jobs. It invests in future efficiency (as opposed to consumer stimulus that has no lasting value). It can help ordinary citizens (as opposed to bailing out investment banks). The problems, aside from delays, are the undignified legislative scramble in putting together such a package, laden with earmarks for silly projects, and the extravagent labor costs for public projects.

Later this month, for instance, the third runway at SeaTac opens — eight years late, 20 years in the planning, 20 lawsuits later, and costing $1 billion (compared to early estimates of $430 million). Oh, and now that airlines are cutting back due to high fuel prices and consolidations, there's some question of whether it was even needed. It's not exactly a confidence-builder for the politics of infrastructure.


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