Since the 1 the 1980s, federal appropriations for infrastructure have declined dramatically — by 70% in the case of water and wastewater. Although President Barack Obama has promised to reverse that trend, his focus on the environment will profoundly influence federal funding philosophies: He's said he would require elected officials in urban areas to make energy conservation part of their planning if they are to receive federal transportation funding, and he's proposed a grant program for cities and states that are early adopters of green-building and energy-efficiency programs.

Such initiatives reflect his goal of building “a new partnership with state and local civic, political, and business leaders to enact a truly national infrastructure policy that recognizes that we must upgrade our infrastructure to meet the demands of a growing population, a changing economy, and our short- and long-term energy challenges.”

Only time will tell how far his ad ministration gets in mobilizing such an effort, but one thing is certain: Obama understands the value of investing in public works. During one campaign speech, he pledged that his administration would use infrastructure — including roads, bridges, and water facilities — to create 2 million jobs.

REVIVING OUR ROADS

As a candidate, Obama proposed creating a “national infrastructure reinvestment bank,” an independent entity charged with investing $60 billion over the next 10 years in transportation projects. But because he has opposed increasing the federal gas tax, it's not clear where the money would come from.

The tax isn't indexed to the inflation rate and hasn't been raised in 15 years. The nonpartisan National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission recommends gradually increasing it to 40 cents/gallon.

To prevent immediate cutbacks in road and bridge maintenance, Obama proposed a one-time $25 billion emergency “jobs and growth fund” that would be distributed to the states via the Highway Trust Fund. While he's hinted at seeking private-sector funds, the main source of long-term transportation funding remains nebulous.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that the government needs to invest $1.6 trillion in infrastructure improvements — including $300 billion on roads and bridges — over the next five years. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials says 3,000 projects worth $17.9 billion could be put out to bid within three months — as soon as federal funds are made available.

Although $60 billion's not nearly enough, any funding would greatly help, says U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

At the 2008 national convention of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) in October, Oberstar cited Texas Transportation Institute research indicating that congestion costs Americans $78 billion annually, and that the only way to reduce the cost of products is to reduce the cost of delivering those products.

“That happens with more investment in infrastructure,” he said.