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Sorry, Grandpa, Your Infrastructure Is Not My Infrastructure

WASHINGTON — Give me liberty and give me infrastructure. Don’t make me choose. What’s one without the other?

Infrastructure, the sleeper issue of the 2016 campaign, will roar if there’s another Philadelphia train wreck on the way to the Democratic Convention.

Infrastructure is a trusty beacon for the state of the nation. Keeping it from falling is a sign of self-respect. It’s more than tracks, roads and bridges. Yet even symbolic Memorial Bridge, connecting Washington and Virginia, is crumbling into dust. Lions and all — what a shame, no pride.

As a city girl, infrastructure is my best friend. I live it every day. Let me count the ways:

The buses on Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues run day and night, chugging on to Capitol Hill or Dupont Circle. Most drivers know me by sight and smile or nod. One saw me hop on to go to the theater — Ford’s — and later asks about the show. Fellow riders are all kinds, young to old, many well-clad on their way to work.

We pass by the imposing white Russian embassy, and boy, they know how to dress smart for winter as they clamber on the 30 bus toward Georgetown, sometimes with babies in hand. I’m headed to Georgetown myself, to the colonial brick library atop Book Hill. It’s a friendly port for anyone — and that’s the point. All are welcome to an inclusive club that looks like George Washington’s home across the river.

The public library, a facility with fireplaces which stays open late on weeknights, became a lifeline for this writer who fled from the Baltimore Sun, a paper that had seen better days. Looking to make her mark in the capital, she met another former reporter, Molly, there to work and chat over coffee. We replaced the hum of the city newsroom we missed.

Infrastructure gives people a free shared structure of place and time. It’s even more essential in economically troubled times, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew. His New Deal public works projects included the Golden Gate Bridge and also employed writers and artists to give them a way to give back their talents to society.

Building infrastructure is good for civic morale, a way out of depression — and Depression. President Obama never tried that cure in the Great Recession.

I should say my grandfather Stratton was the chief highway engineer for Wisconsin. He believed in building highways and more highways, saving neat slides of every one. President Dwight D. Eisenhower oversaw the massive interstate highway system. In midcentury America, highways were king, ripping out the hearts of many downtowns.

Sorry, dear Grandpa, my infrastructure is not your infrastructure. Yours is the “basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads and power supplies) for the operation of a society.”

For me, highways and freeways are actually anti-social infrastructure, because they don’t throw people together. A stark individualism separates us all in automobiles and SUVs, even bumper-to-bumper, dude.

The internet is touted as the greatest good, but there’s nothing like public transportation — the New York subway, the Washington Metro — to act as a healthy equalizer. We are all in it together, literally — a campaign slogan Hillary Clinton uses. Somehow we all benefit from sharing the same space.

Los Angeles, the horizontal city built on asphalt, is awakening to the urgent need for social infrastructure. The boy that grew up next door to me in Santa Monica is now a leader in putting in place the Expo light rail train to ferry people from the Westside to downtown. This is no less than a Newtonian shift.

The swift, quiet Metro here was just discovered to be in dire need of repairs, so that Washingtonians will have to wait 18 minutes during “single-tracking” trains. C’mon. That’s a hardship for a city of people, with scheduling down to an art, who hate to waste a minute.

A happy infrastructure moment: Hearing me praise Abraham Lincoln and the great anti-slavery Quaker Lucretia Mott, Georgetown librarians asked me to give public history talks. Journalism and history fused in telling true stories that broke some “news.”

In summer, I duck over to a sparkling city pool, seeking inspiration free of charge.

 

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit creators.com.

Photo: Flickr user Daniel Lobo

A Freeway Terrorist Attack Is The ‘Nightmare We Worry About’

By Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

There are few places where Southern Californians feel more trapped than on a freeway in standstill traffic.

One of the San Bernardino shooters and his childhood friend talked about taking advantage of this vulnerability by launching a terrorist attack on a clogged freeway using guns and pipe bombs, according to court records released last week.

Syed Rizwan Farook and Enrique Marquez Jr. mapped out the plan to attack the 91 Freeway in detail and collected weapons and explosives in 2011 and 2012, only to abort the plot, the records say.

Still, their alleged scheme has counterterrorism experts alarmed and baffled. Experts say such an attack would be feasible, but some questioned the seriousness of the plot, given that there are so many easier ways for shooters to kill large numbers of people.

Officials said they had never uncovered an alleged terrorist plot involving freeways until now. But Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who oversees the counterterrorism bureau, said it’s a scenario officials have discussed and tried to plan for.

It is “a nightmare that we worry about,” Downing said.

According to a criminal complaint filed against Marquez last week in federal court, he and Farook planned to target a location on the 91 Freeway during the afternoon rush hour.

The complaint does not specify the exact location but said the area lacked exits, which the two believed would increase the number of targets. Marquez admitted to authorities that he would set up a position in the hills south of the freeway as Farook would throw pipe bombs into the eastbound lanes to stop traffic, the court papers said.

Farook would then move among the stopped vehicles, shooting motorists. Marquez said his plan was to shoot at stopped vehicles from the hill and watch for approaching police and emergency workers, prosecutors alleged. His priority, he said, was to shoot at police before firing on medical personnel.

The document said Marquez stopped planning the attack in 2012 for several reasons, including the arrest of a group of men in Chino in an unrelated terrorism case.

Downing said that even staging an accident on a section of a freeway with few exits would give terrorists the ability to attack motorists stopped in traffic.

The key for law enforcement, he said, would be to send officers to the scene quickly to stop the attack.

Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people Dec. 2 at a holiday party in San Bernardino. They were later killed in a shootout with authorities. Both are said to have expressed support for Islamic radicalism. Marquez was charged last week with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists related to the 91 Freeway plan, and another aborted plot targeting Riverside City College. He was also charged with illegally providing some of the weapons used in the Dec. 2 shootings.

Both the San Bernardino shooting and the Islamic State attacks in Paris underscored the vulnerabilities of “soft targets.” Both attacks occurred away from landmarks that officials have often considered the most likely terrorist targets and instead hit suburban areas with much more limited security.

The alleged 91 Freeway plan is one of many plots uncovered in the United States that targeted transportation. According to the New York Police Department, plans included cutting the support cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, exploding bombs in the New York subway system and blowing up train tubes under the Hudson and East rivers.

There have been several aborted efforts to commit terrorism at transportation hubs, law enforcement authorities say:

2000: Plot uncovered to attack Los Angeles International Airport.

2003: Man plots to cut cable supports for the Brooklyn Bridge.

2006: Group talks of blowing up a train tunnel under the Hudson River, causing massive flooding.

2006: Men plot to blow up gas storage tanks and lines leading to JFK Airport.

2008: Man talked of using a suitcase bomb in river tunnel on Long Island Railroad.

2009: Men plot bombings in New York subway system.

2012: Men are accused of plot to blow up a bridge near Cleveland.

Source: Los Angeles Times reports; New York Police Department

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Raymond Shobe via Flickr

 

Ahead Of Highway Bill Deadline, One Republican’s Evolution On The Road To Transport Devolution

By David Harrison, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Supporters of a strong federal role in transportation have what seems like an unlikely ally in their effort to shift the direction of highway spending from Washington to the states.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James M. Inhofe made an impassioned case for federal transportation funding last month, breaking from fellow conservatives who have called for devolving transportation down to the states.

“The conservative position is to go ahead and do an authorization bill,” the Oklahoma Republican said during a committee hearing. “Quoting the Constitution, the two elements that are the most basic responsibility of the federal government are national defense and the development of a national transportation infrastructure.”

Inhofe’s remarks provide Democrats an important partner in their attempts to maintain the federal role, and they come at a critical time. The May deadline for passing a highway bill is nearing, and the protracted battle over funding the Department of Homeland Security suggests that agreement on big issues will be almost impossible to come by.

To many, the debate on reauthorization of surface transportation programs carries major questions about the fundamental nature of the programs. The constitutional question that Inhofe refers to is the Commerce Clause, which sets up the road map for interstate commerce that Congress has followed for decades in backing roadways, waterways and railroads that further the transport of people and goods.

Inhofe’s comments suggest a split in the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

On one side are lawmakers such as Inhofe, dedicated conservatives who nonetheless consider building highways to be one of the few obligations of government. On the other side are those such as Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and groups including Heritage Action for America that want to either freeze or reduce the federal gas tax and shift the responsibility of infrastructure spending onto the states.

Inhofe embraced GOP heritage when making his case, quoting Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, who is largely credited with advancing the interstate highway system in the mid-1950s. “He used to say it’s as much about national defense as it is about interstate commerce.”

Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, said the country has moved on from the Eisenhower era.

“Our nation is no longer in danger of becoming a ‘mere alliance of many separate parts,’ as he once feared,” Holler said. “Since the completion of the interstate highway system two decades ago, Washington has struggled to play a productive role in surface transportation. It is time to let the states fully control those decisions without the interference of bureaucrats and committee chairmen in Washington.”

It’s hard to see Congress taking devolution ideas too seriously, however. After all, it would mean giving up lawmakers’ ability to provide federal dollars for projects back home. Last year, a Lee amendment to reduce the federal gas tax and let states pick up the slack fell 28-69, with even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), then the minority leader, voting against it.

Still, Inhofe’s outspoken defense of federal spending is a sign that conservatives have not given up on the idea, and they may use the coming highway bill to try to get traction for the change.

Inhofe also claimed credit for launching the idea of devolution, something he said he has come to regret.

“Twenty-five years ago, Connie Mack from Florida and Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma were the fathers of devolution,” he said. “Until we realized how it didn’t work. Obviously it was more fun to be for than against it.”

Inhofe said nothing about when this change of heart occurred. Based on his voting record, it came fairly recently. Last July, Inhofe was one of the 28 senators to vote for Lee’s devolution amendment, which would have gradually reduced the federal gas tax from its current 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents per gallon.

Inhofe missed the debate on the amendment, but his spirit hovered over the Senate floor as proponents and opponents sought to claim his support.

“Senator Inhofe has voted for this provision in the past,” Lee said at the time. “In fact, in the past, Senator Inhofe has introduced a version of this very piece of legislation.”

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) shot back: “It is not convenient to speak about another member when they’re not here, but mind, Sen. Inhofe does not currently support this,” she said. “We’ll find out in a couple of hours. One of us can apologize.”

Inhofe voted with Lee.

An Inhofe aide said the senator’s final renunciation of his earlier backing of devolution could have come earlier this year.

“He has supported devolution,” the aide said. “States this year are sounding the alarm that devolution is not realistic.”

At the hearing last month, Inhofe got the backing of Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, Lee’s home state.

“There’s a strong purpose in our nation’s transportation system for having a strong federal role,” he said. “We depend on the federal program to operate and maintain our state system.”

Inhofe’s committee has been working on a long-term highway bill, but members have yet to release any details.

Boxer, the ranking member on Environment and Public Works, said she was pleased with the progress but had harsh words for other committees, particularly Senate Finance, which she accused of foot-dragging.

The Finance Committee is responsible for providing the funding levels for the highway bill, one of the most difficult and politically controversial aspects of the highway program.

Boxer also said she agreed with a suggestion from Senator David Vitter (R-LA) to raise the gas tax but to offset it with equivalent tax breaks for working or middle-class families to keep their overall tax bills from going up.

A higher gas tax, Vitter said, “needs to include a tax offset for middle-class families so that at least everyone except the very wealthy don’t pay more federal taxes.”

Boxer said she liked that idea and noted it would represent a tax offset of $36 a year for middle-class households.

Increasing the gas tax is almost certainly dead in this Congress but the idea of tying it to an equivalent tax offset could pick up some more bipartisan support, particularly if the Senate Finance and the House Ways and Means committees remain tight-lipped about their infrastructure funding plans.

Photo: Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense via Flickr

Can You Spare 12 Cents For Better U.S. Highways?

Dec. 11 (Bloomberg View) — In the middle of the last century the U.S. started building the Interstate Highway System. It’s now named after President Dwight Eisenhower, who shepherded its passage through Congress in 1956. Connecting the far-flung corners of this large nation, this 47,714-mile network allows commerce to flow freely. The cost of construction, adjusted for inflation, was more than $400 billion. By any imaginable measure, it was a wild success, and soon became the envy of the world.

The construction and maintenance was paid for mainly through levies on sales of vehicles, tires and related goods, and a federal gasoline tax that generates about $28 billion a year for the Highway Trust Fund.

The assumption was that the system’s maintenance and improvements would be paid for by users: Those who drove on the roads and highways. The fairest way to assess that was through a gasoline tax. Drive more or bigger vehicles, you pay more. Seems rather logical.

Fast-forward a half-century.

The gas tax has been stuck in a time warp. It was last raised in 1993, to 18.4 cents a gallon. Despite the passage of more than 20 years, with both ensuing inflation and an aging system that needs ever-more maintenance, there it has stayed. The Highway Trust Fund has been starved of cash, and is the process of going broke.

Ike wouldn’t be happy.

Do we need to recite the cases of deteriorating bridges and buckling roads? It’s become routine to detail the annual ratings of our infrastructure (D+), the loss of life when bridge collapses occur, and the increased costs of delay and loss of productivity. It is also a national embarrassment to see our infrastructure decay because of intentional neglect, short-sightedness and ideology.

Enough already.

Let’s take as a rule of thumb that large-scale public-works projects require annual maintenance equal to about 10 percent of construction costs. Apply that to the national highway system and that implies a trust fund budget of about $50 billion a year. That would require the gas tax to rise to about 30 cents a gallon, with adjustments in the future to account for inflation.

Oil prices have fallen 39 percent in the past five months. Gas prices have fallen more than 50 cents a gallon since 2013, according to the American Automobile Association. It would be painless to raise the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon.

Providing the trust fund with the money it needs would have all sorts of ancillary benefits: Various state and municipalities would have enough money to do local road improvements. Traffic would move more quickly and efficiently. Better highways would increase productivity, and save consumers and businesses billions of dollars a year in wear, tear and damage to vehicles. Updating our highways also might make them safer, reducing injuries and saving lives.

If we as a nation were smart, we should explore ways of making our transportation system more intelligent through the use of existing technology. This would allow us to move greater volumes of traffic more efficiently, saving everyone time and money.

An American who travels to Europe or Asia quickly learns that other nations have leapfrogged the U.S. system.  There are many competitive advantages for companies in Europe and Asia, especially in China. Bringing our highway system into the 21st century would be a boon for the U.S. economy.

Unfortunately, the U.S. highway system doesn’t even meet late 20th-century standards. It is long past due for basic maintenance.

Why Congress takes so little pride in one of the great U.S. accomplishments is beyond my understanding. We should find out soon if Congress is the incompetent Parliament of Whores depicted by P.J. O’Rourke, or whether it can carry out even the most basic of government functions.

Photo: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons