WASHINGTON - Big-city mayors told Congress yesterday that they are overwhelmed by the infrastructure needs of their regions and cannot maintain well-functioning water systems, roads, and rail networks without more federal help.
"We're having a quiet collapse of prosperity," said Mark Funkhouser, mayor of Kansas City, Mo., and one of four mayors to testify before the Senate Banking Committee about the state of the nation's infrastructure, which they agreed was poor and getting worse. They attributed much of the decay to shortsighted thinking by local, state, and federal officials.
The issue of the country's deteriorating transportation systems came under scrutiny last year with the collapse of a bridge in Minnesota that killed 13 people. While experts believe a poor design led to that collapse, the mayors sounded an alarm about decay throughout the system and its long-term effects on the US economy.
Senators on the panel were largely supportive of the mayors' concerns, but one, Thomas Carper, a Delaware Democrat, reminded them, "At the end of the day, we've got to figure out how to pay for this stuff."
New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, urged Congress to abandon the tradition of earmark spending, where individual lawmakers often deliver dollops of taxpayer money to small local projects that don't provide much help for the long-term needs of their districts.
"We're as guilty as anybody," acknowledged Bloomberg. "We ask for money for things that are totally local, and why the federal government does it, I don't know. They shouldn't be doing it, although we will continue to ask as long as they are giving it out.
"Our senators have the obligation to bring home the bacon like everybody else does. . . . Seems to me the Senate should get together and say together, 'We're not going to do it anymore.' "
The American Society of Engineers estimates that bringing the nation's transportation and resources networks up to a properly functional level would require $1.6 trillion and five years of work. Still, the mayors say, even that wouldn't accommodate the new strains placed on roads in coming years.
Funkhouser said municipalities like Kansas City are unable to meet infrastructure needs on their own. Kansas City has a $6 billion backlog of needed improvements to roads, highways, and the city's outdated sewer system. The scale of massive projects such as expanding access to the Interstate 435 and Interstate 70 interchange or linking the downtown "loop" with the urban Crossroads neighborhood to the south requires more help from the federal government, he said.
John Peyton, the mayor of Jacksonville, Fla., said a bigger port under construction in his city will eventually add a half-million trucks to surrounding roads, which aren't ready for them. "Our existing level of transportation infrastructure simply cannot handle this kind of shift in trade from the West Coast to the East Coast as it is today. We will need new roads and rail," he said.
Atlanta's mayor, Shirley Franklin, said she is still struggling to fix her city's water and sewer systems after decades of neglect. The issue became more urgent as the South suffers from a long-running drought pitting state against state in battles for water supplies.
To answer such demands, Senators Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, and Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, are pushing a bill to create a National Infrastructure Bank that would raise money for major projects by issuing up to $60 billion in tax credit bonds, which could then be leveraged into greater funding.
Dodd, the committee's chairman, said he would bring the bill before the panel next month, but it is unclear whether it would actually get a vote on the Senate floor this year.