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The American Infrastructure Debate 

[PoliticsWatch updated 3:00 p.m., August 31, 2007]

Democrat Hillary Clinton is the only U.S. presidential candidate with a detailed infrastructure plan and co-sponsored Senate legislation to create a federal commission on infrastructure.  

OTTAWA -- In the U.S., politicians are having a difficult time agreeing on the correct prescription for aging infrastructure. 

The August bridge collapse in Minnesota quickly became politicized. 

Within hours of the incident, Democrats were calling for more government spending and Republicans were trying to dodge pressure to raise fuel taxes to finance infrastructure improvement projects. 

Of the Democratic presidential candidates, nobody has been quicker off the mark than frontrunner Senator Hillary Clinton, who announced a detailed "Rebuild America Plan" exactly one week after the collapse. 

"Something is very, very wrong when, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, in the richest country on earth, people are actually nervous about driving over bridges for fear that they’ll collapse," Clinton said upon unveiling her plan which would cost well over $10 billion. 

The U.S. media has also played a role in brining the safety of U.S. infrastructure into the presidential debates. 

The first reporter's question asked at an August Democratic presidential candidates debate was about infrastructure and the bridge collapse. The debate was hosted by the labour group AFL-CIO, whose members include construction workers. 

Unlike Clinton, the other Dems do not have a detailed infrastructure plan and have used the infrastructure issue to blast seemingly unrelated White House policies.  

Some Democratic candidates even suggested during the AFL-CIO debate that pulling out of Iraq would save the U.S. government money that it could reinvest in projects at home.  

"I happen to believe that putting our country back to work begins by cutting the funding for the war in Iraq," said Senator Christopher Dodd to the cheers and applause of the labour activists in the audience. 

"Spending $12 billion every month, spending $2 billion every week has got to stop if we’re going to have a different set of priorities in our country . . .  We ought to be investing in the bridges and the highways and the water systems, the safe drinking systems in our country here."

Senator Barack Obama appeared unprepared for questions about infrastructure and turned his answer into a full criticism of the mission in Iraq.  Obama said getting out of Iraq would "will allow us to free up the kinds of resources that will make us safer here at home." 

On the Republican side, one candidate used the Minneapolis bridge collapse to highlight one of his pet campaign issues. 

Senator John McCain blamed earmarks, which are unrelated attachments to government bills, for contributing to the bridge collapse and America's infrastructure problems. 

“We spend approximately $20 billion of fuel tax money on pork barrel earmark projects," McCain said. "Maybe if we had done it right, some of that money would have gone to inspect the bridge.”

Some recent earmarks that McCain referred to was the $48 million for a proposed indoor rain forest in Iowa.

The bridge collapse also prompted calls for Republicans to support an increase in the gasoline sales tax to help fund infrastructure repairs, an idea that was shot down by U.S. President George W. Bush

Rep. James L. Oberstar a Democrat from Minnesota proposed increasing the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax by five cents for three years to cover the costs of repairing 73,000 U.S. bridges deemed "structurally deficient." 

However, Bush said Congress should instead revisit how it spends infrastructure money. 

"So before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities. And if bridges are a priority, let's make sure we set that priority first and foremost before we raise taxes."

At the August Iowa Republican presidential debate, the Republican presidential candidates were asked about their views on increasing the gas tax. 

All dismissed the idea as a way to finance repairing roads and bridges. 

"We should put more money into infrastructure," said frontrunner Rudy Giuliani. " We should have a good program for doing it. But the knee-jerk liberal Democratic reaction -- raise taxes to get money -- very often is a very big mistake." 

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said the key was to reprioritize spending, not raise taxes, as he did in his state when 500 bridges were found to be structurally deficient. 

"We changed how we focused our money. Instead of spending it to build new projects -- the bridge to nowhere, new trophies for congressmen -- we instead said, 'Fix it first,'" he said. 

Despite differing views on how to finance infrastructure improvements, both political parties in Congress do agree the problem needs to be addressed. 

On August 13, less than two weeks after the Minneapolis collapse, one Republican and two Democrats (including Senator Clinton) had a bill they co-sponsored pass unanimously. 

The National Infrastructure Improvement Act creates a commission on infrastructure that will be mandated to complete a study by February 2010 to review the U.S.'s public infrastructure. The commission will produce a federal infrastructure plan and provide direction to Congress on what legislation is required to address infrastructure needs. 

: Related Links

> Infrastructure debate heats up in the U.S. and Canada

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