It’s early March, when a Vermonter’s fancy turns to self-preservation.
To prevention of violent, unforeseen whiplash; fractured skulls from our noggins banging mercilessly against the driver- and passenger-door windows of our vehicles; our coccyx, lumbar, thoracic and cervical vertebrae being wrenched out of alignment as our cars careen into and out of potholes, over frost heaves like minor mountains in the road, and through those sudden depressions in the surface that seem just a bit shy of actual sinkholes.
What a perfect time for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch to drop by on a visit from Washington, D.C., just before Town Meeting Day, to chat with a group of Vermont mayors, and later with the editors of the Times Argus and Rutland Herald, on the subject (among others) of infrastructure.
Our infrastructure seems as rowdy as a funhouse without the fun.
And that’s just the roads. There are major problems with bridges (a kind of road), and, perhaps most seriously, with sewage and stormwater pipeline systems that get overwhelmed by serious rain events and send untreated water into our streams and rivers. The mayors broached other subjects, too: water treatment plant upgrades; weatherization and energy-efficiency improvements for municipal buildings; sidewalks; culverts.
Putting the cities’ needs into startling historical context, Rutland Mayor David Allaire told the congressman, “(We need) to address what we see as a $100 million ongoing replacement of our 125-year-old underground and sewer pipes.” Rutland’s largely 19th-century subterranean infrastructure is not an exception among Vermont’s municipalities.
Looking beyond their boundary lines, the mayors also discussed Vermont’s rural infrastructure, which is less obvious but of concern for everyone who wants our state to be a viable, appealing place for people to move to and live. Concerns include improving public transportation (reducing the costs and carbon output of automobile dependency) and high-speed internet systems (for lifestyle, communications and economic opportunities).
Welch was more than receptive to these concerns and eagerly announced he was engaged with Rep. Peter Alfazio, D-Oregon, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in crafting a (possibly) $1.5 trillion infrastructure spending bill.
If only he hadn’t predicted the bill would receive “bipartisan support.” Those words seem to be the kiss of death for such legislation.
There aren’t many issues that seem ripe for bipartisan support these days — not gun control, not healthcare, not the wall, not tax reform, not climate change interventions, not the budget. Military overspending seems to be an area of wide, though thankfully not universal, bipartisan support. And infrastructure is touted, over and over again, as such an issue. It should be — we all live within the U.S. infrastructure and experience its deficiencies daily.
But at the outset of the Obama presidency in 2009, when the country was mired in the Great Recession, an infrastructure program seemed like an effective way to put people to work and invest in the physical plant that sustains us economically, environmentally, culturally, etc. Surely, the Democrats thought, this would be a bipartisan effort. Instead, Congressional Republicans scaled back Obama’s 2009 American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, the primary vehicle for infrastructure projects, reducing its ambition and effectiveness.
Then it was Donald Trump’s turn. He had campaigned significantly on “roads and bridges,” comparing the U.S. infrastructure to that of Third World (s-hole?) countries. With Democrats acknowledging they could cooperate on infrastructure, Trump, after reflexively belittling Obama’s effort, introduced a plan with a radical approach. Using $200 billion in federal monies, Trump and his backers said they could generate $1.5 trillion in spending from private donors, states and municipalities. They also proposed to consolidate regulatory approvals, designating a lead agency for each project and shrinking the timeline for deliberation to two years. Opponents raised objections, of course — that environmental concerns would be disregarded, that private donors would bankroll projects that benefited the privileged, not the masses.
In the end, though, it was Republicans’ priorities that sank the thing. After bloating the military budget from $716 billion to $750 billion and pushing through drastic tax cuts in December, they didn’t have the gall to add the $200 billion federal portion of infrastructure spending to what had become a preposterous national deficit.
We applaud Welch’s determination to pursue ambitious infrastructure spending. Certainly, Vermonters who will be rockin’ and rollin’ along terrible stretches of highway like Route 2 between Plainfield and Danville for at least two more years because the state had to put off the project due to lack of funding, know it’s needed.
But “bipartisan support” seems like wishful thinking.