A quarter of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Delays at overcrowded airports cost the country billions of dollars a year, while the pipes that carry our drinking water are reaching the end of their useful lives. Alas, although Obama keeps calling for new spending on infrastructure, Republicans have largely blocked his efforts. But there’s a way for him to peel off a number of GOP lawmakers to support a major infrastructure overhaul. His secret weapon is the Panama Canal.
The fastest, most economical way to ship goods around the world is on a new generation of super-freighters. These ships already ferry about 45 percent of the world’s cargo—and they would carry even more if they could fit through the canal’s century-old locks. This means that, right now, if U.S.-based companies on or near the Atlantic coast want to ship goods to Asia, they usually send containers over land by truck or train to ports on the Pacific Ocean. But the Panama Canal is getting a major upgrade, which means soon those companies will be able to send goods directly from any port on the Atlantic capable of handling the super-freighters.
And that’s where the opportunity lies for Obama. Ports in Norfolk, New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, and Miami will be ready for the super-freighters by around 2015. But other ports, such as Charleston and Savannah, need more work. Without the improvements, the ports could lose business to harbors all across the Americas. (Brazil, for instance, is investing billions in its ports to boost sea traffic to and from Asia, especially China.)
South Carolina and Georgia have been trying, with varying success, to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for dredging and modernizing their ports. But since their governments are already cash poor, their representatives—most of whom happen to be Republican—desperately want Washington to help out. Senator Lindsey Graham has called on the federal government to contribute to port modernization. So have Representatives Tom Price and Tim Scott as well as Nikki Haley, the Republican governor.
Obama could use this opening to push for an ambitious infrastructure bill, one that funds all kinds of projects—school repair, mass transit, improvements to the power grid—alongside port construction. (Congressional Democrats have already offered something like this in their budgets.) Obama’s preferred approach is to let agencies decide which proposals are most worthy, but the administration obviously thinks the ports could qualify: Last year, it approved closer study of harbor modernization proposals for Charleston, Jacksonville, and Savannah. Graham, for his part, has assured constituents that Charleston’s bid is strong enough to get federal funding.
Obama’s hand is strengthened further by the ban on earmarks imposed by congressional Republicans—since it will be extremely hard for Southern lawmakers to get money for ports unless it’s included in a larger infrastructure measure. “It’s a way to engage the conversation—here’s something you really want, and it is of national importance, so how can we work together to make it happen,” says Mortimer Downey, a former Transportation Department official who now works for private clients. And with unemployment still above 7 percent and the cost of borrowing money at a record low, the timing couldn’t be better.
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.