The joys of being a non-issue

In September 2011, US President Barack Obama took a crack at making infrastructure part of the national discourse. Addressing a joint session of Congress, the President argued that building a rail line or paving a road someplace is tantamount to job creation – his real agenda – and that creating a $10 billion National Infrastructure Bank is doable for Big Government.

In general, people who work in finance in America are affluent, white, college educated, and have a tendency to believe that the federal government is oppressing them. The people who work in infrastructure tend to believe that, too. Ask a Wall Street executive about regulating ‘too big to fail’. Then ask a transmission line developer about preserving farmland. I have and the response is similar. 

The point is, in late 2011 infrastructure, not to mention the people who earned a living from infrastructure – building it, investing in it – were relevant on Capitol Hill. Not anymore.

A year later, and on the eve of a Presidential election, infrastructure is out of vogue in Washington, and neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, has delved into infrastructure substantively in recent campaigning.

We ought to be grateful: America in 2012 is a vertical split. For that, we can thank Washington. Infrastructure getting kicked to the curb on K Street is a blessing in a thinly veiled disguise.

BIPARTISANISM

After his September speech, the Republican Senate shot down a proposed $60 billion infrastructure measure the President had introduced as part of his job stimulus. Then a Republican infrastructure spending plan was killed. That was that. As a political issue, infrastructure was of little use in riling the US public, which is the true aim of bipartisanism.

At best, the state of US infrastructure is a blame game. The industry is upset with federal government. Local government is apt to blame a lack of education on the part of the public. The US public, meanwhile, is drowning in debt and couldn’t care less about gas tax right now.

Washington glimpsed its divisive potential. Remember the “Bridge to Nowhere”? How about “shovel-ready”? “You didn’t build that”? Each sound-bite referenced infrastructure, and each failed in its desired political effect. Infrastructure just didn’t make people mad enough or suspicious enough. Infrastructure – considered vital to economic growth and societal wellbeing – didn’t provide enough ammunition for further political polarisation.

“This is an all-or-nothing political climate,” says Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. “It has made people crazed and extreme.”

Hickenlooper, a geologist who was elected Governor in 2011, has put infrastructure on the docket in the Centennial State. The High Performance Transportation Enterprise (HPTE), a unit of the Colorado Department of Transportation focused on surface transportation infrastructure, is in the midst of a tolling project on US Route 36.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, blamed negative campaigning for what he termed “diminished democracy”.

“If Coke and Pepsi campaigned against each other, no one would buy either,” he says. “You would have a diminished product. Because of negative campaigning, we have a diminished democracy”.

‘OUT OF WASHINGTON'

Given the emphasis in Washington on the short term – where a President is elected only to a four-year term – the politicisation of infrastructure, where outside-the-box, long-term thinking is crucial, is especially counter-productive.

A Capitol Hill watcher capable of blunt political observation, Norman Anderson is also  president and chief executive of CG-LA Infrastructure, a consultant dedicated to the asset class.

Last month, CG-LA moved the traditionally Washington-based CG-LA North America Strategic Infrastructure Leadership Forum to Denver.

“I wanted to get people out of Washington because of the climate there” Anderson says.

It was the right call. In Denver, the discussion of US infrastructure was left to the people who do it and live it – and who care about it too much to let it succumb to political antagonism.