Interview: Ed Rendell on infrastructure in the age of Trump

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Ed Rendell likes to talk about transportation. He talks to legislators, daytime TV hosts, news anchors and policy experts about everything from hazardous bridges to centuries-old pipelines. That’s because about six years ago, after his second term as governor of Pennsylvania, Rendell formed Building America’s Future, a small but active advocacy group, to spread awareness about the dire state of American infrastructure and the pressing need for investment.

As mayor of Philadelphia, Rendell got a close look at how transportation affects people’s lives. Later, as governor, he fought to improve the state’s badly maintained roads and bridges. His latest effort puts him on the national stage just as President Trump promises a massive transportation bill. Here, Rendell talks about what the bill might look like and whether it will actually confront the challenge of a literally crumbling nation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You’ve navigated transportation policy at the local, state and now national level. Could you walk us through your own education on how infrastructure happens in this country?

What I’ve learned is, if we are really going to make American infrastructure something that is first class again, we need all hands on deck. Interestingly, in the absence of any increase in spending by the federal government, the local governments and in particular the states have stepped up. Nineteen states have passed gas tax increases in the last three years. Twelve others are considering them this year, like North Dakota, Utah and Montana. States you wouldn’t believe would be raising taxes are raising taxes significantly. The only entity that hasn’t stepped up is the federal government. What should happen in the palace of truth and justice, which doesn’t exist anymore, is the federal gas tax should be raised.

President Trump said he plans to announce a $1 trillion infrastructure plan this year. What are the opportunities?

Trump talks about a $1 trillion investment — and by the way, that’s over 10 years — but he’s talking about federal, state, local and private investment all together. His idea about tax breaks [for private investors in transportation] makes hardly any sense at all. Would a tax credit system work? It would generate some money. But if Donald’s plan is to do it all out of private investment, that’s unrealistic. Let’s take bridges as an example. There are 55,000 structurally deficient bridges in the United States. Think about that. It’s pretty scary. But if we use private investors to repair those bridges, of course, they will want a return on their investment. In most cases, that would come from tolling. But out of those 55,000 bridges, no more than 100 have enough traffic to generate the money to pay back private investors. Those 100 are usually in big metropolitan cities. The smaller cities and the rural areas, they have bridges that no one is going to toll. That’s the weakness of the Trump plan.

The White House has a reputation for being a fairly tight circle. What does coalition building look like in the Trump era? How do you make sure smart transportation policy gets into the conversation?

In fairness to the Trump people, their transition team reached out to some advocacy groups. Marcia Hale, our president and CEO, has been in touch with members of the Trump administration, and we’ve given them ideas. How much weight that will carry remains to be seen. One thing the president can do is use the advocacy community to help create pressure to pass the bill. If the president and the White House were smart, they would put together a good, solid bill that had private funding and government funding, and go to the advocacy community and say, “OK, we need your help.” And I think [the community] would respond.

Is there a political risk in working with the Trump administration on this issue?

If we do an infrastructure bill that has increased federal spending and things are being built and tens of thousands of people are being put to work in high-wage jobs, we can co-opt it just like the Republicans did with Bill Clinton and welfare reform. But leaving aside the credit, there has to be some time in our process when political advantage becomes secondary to getting things done. Our infrastructure is falling apart. We’ve got a public safety obligation. We have an economic competitiveness obligation, and we’ve got an obligation to produce high-wage jobs. That has to come first. Politics have to come second.

Do you think the level of partisanship that has come with Trump changes that dynamic?

Look, I think he could pivot. Even assuming we win the 2020 election, or even the 2018 election, things can’t wait. In every state, there are crying needs. If you put them off, it’s dangerous. I’ll give you one idea. I-95, the nation’s largest superhighway, goes through Pennsylvania for 18 miles. On those 18 miles, there are some 27 bridges. Almost all of them are structurally deficient. To repair them would cost somewhere between $1.5 and $2 billion. The state can’t scratch the surface of that. We’re the only state on 95 that doesn’t toll. We need the Trump administration to allow us to toll 95.

Do you see the Trump administration being sensitive to transit, cycling or pedestrian issues?

My fear is that with the Republicans fully in control, if there is an infrastructure bill, it will probably not have anything about pedestrian safety, or any of the advances that were in the last few transportation bills. The Republicans have always wanted to take funding away from those things. They think those are all liberal things. But if there are, let’s say, five enormously important needs, and [the bill] address three and a half, that’s better than no bill. Do I want to see pedestrian corridors? Do I want to see bike lanes? Absolutely. But if the bill doesn’t have them, should we still support it? Well, sure, if it’s going to repair our electrical grid, repair our bridges, expand our highway access, build high-speed passenger rail.

How do you make ideas like bike lanes and pedestrian corridors less partisan?

You don’t. But if, for example, we control the Senate, we could make funding for those things part of the bill. But we control nothing. I always tell people, elections have consequences.

“With the Republicans fully in control, I’m afraid a real bill won’t get through.”

Are you hopeful at all that the Republicans will produce a bill you could support?

There’s such an anti-spending view in Washington, thanks to Grover Norquist and his crowd, that I’m worried Congress will not vote for any real significant federal spending. And the Democrats are not going to vote for a bill that’s all private, because they know that all private isn’t going to answer the question. It’s interesting: An Ohio congressman, Steve LaTourette, a Republican, who actually just passed away, told me once, “Governor, if there was a secret vote to raise the gas tax, out of 435 congressmen, you’d get about 360 voting yes. In the Senate, you’d get 80 out of 100 voting yes.” When he told me that, the Democrats controlled at least one chamber. Now, with the Republicans fully in control, I’m afraid a real bill won’t get through.

In 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation rated 44 percent of the state’s roads “fair” or “poor.” Two years later, the American Society of Civil Engineers ranked the state’s roads and bridges as among the worst in the country. As governor, what were you able to do to address this problem?

When I took office, there were 6,600 structurally deficient bridges in Pennsylvania. I took stimulus money from [President Obama] and did a bridge repair bill, and when I left we were down to 4,700. We got high marks for what we did, but 4,700 structurally deficient bridges still put us at either first- or second-worst in the nation. In my last three years, I tried to get the gas tax raised. But Republicans controlled the legislature and said no. Ironically, two years later, my successor Tom Corbett pushed a bill that raised the gas tax. He asked me to come up and do a press conference. I did. I said this was the same bill I wanted to pass. And it passed. It proved what I said all along: People are willing to support work on infrastructure as long as they don’t see boondoggles or special earmarks.

What do people most often misunderstand about transportation policy?

People have no idea that the gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1994. It’s worth about two-thirds of what it was worth then, because of inflation. When I speak to different groups, I’ll give them an idea of what things cost in 1994. What did it cost to go to the movies? What did it cost to buy a loaf of bread? And of course, the increase is substantial. Then I ask, why do you think it would be any different with roads and highways?

What are the stakes for the City of Philadelphia?

Tremendous. If we’re going to keep making progress, we need more spending on transportation. There are pipes that deliver water and sewage in Philadelphia that were laid in the 19th century. The 19th century! Not the 20th century, the 19th century. Whenever we have a stretch of below-freezing weather and then the next two days are 60 degrees, water mains break all over the city. There’s a huge sinkhole in the new shopping center built in East Falls, a 50-foot sinkhole, because our underground infrastructure is so decrepit. SEPTA takes big, heavy trains over bridges that are 106 years old. The stakes are great for us, no question about it. ◆

Photo by Kaitlyn Moore

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