How to Fix It: Rebuild Schools, Roads, and the Economy

After three decades of budget cuts and neglect, America's infrastructure is in abysmal shape, and the costs of rebuilding it are extraordinary. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates a five-year cost of $1.6 trillion to bring roads, bridges, dams, and wastewater facilities, among other public infrastructure, up to acceptable standards. One in three public schools is in need of major repair, which the Department of Education says will cost $127 billion. And none of this includes Katrina reconstruction, the total price tag of which has been estimated at close to $100 billion.

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Some of the rebuilding might be accomplished through a federal construction program along the lines of the Works Progress Administration, which built everything from the Golden Gate Bridge to LaGuardia Airport. But a proposal by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) offers a more decentralized option—a national infrastructure bank that would make $50 billion in zero-interest loans to states and municipalities per year over a 10-year period, creating some 2 million jobs and reducing pressure on states and municipalities, which are approaching fiscal crisis even without the cost of rebuilding roads and schools.

yeas: Kucinich's bill has only one cosponsor. However, Barack Obama's agenda includes a weaker and cheaper version of Kucinich's initiative—with a private bank and about a 10th of the funding—which in turn follows the outline of legislation introduced last year by senators Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg have also founded a coalition of state and local officials to press for increased federal funding for infrastructure.

nays: Wall Street, which in many cases prefers privatization of infrastructure. And after the Katrina experience, public interest groups might well worry about the potential for contractor fraud.

chances? Kucinich's legislation has languished; the best Congress has managed so far are the Dodd-Hagel initiative (still in committee) and the misleadingly named National Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2007, which calls for a pitiful $4 million to create a study commission.

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