For the experience

Bill Wilson / September 09, 2008

Doug Gannaway does not see a snake in Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. He sees a lizard.

Back when he lived in California, the construction of nuclear power plants just a few miles south of San Jose was proposed and passed until a group of environmentalists, trying to save an endangered lizard, whipped it into the court system, where it slowly decayed. Gannaway has heard all the promises on the Democratic side. The problem is he has not seen much action.

“That summer we had scheduled rolling brownouts where they went in and shut down your power for four hours,” the rail projects engineer for the Indiana Department of Transportation told Roads & Bridges. “That’s not working for me, man. That to me shows we have more people interested in keeping their butts in office than whether or not I have the lights on or the refrigerator working.

“California was a bastion of Democratic rule,” he continued. “Roads there are terrible. I can go to places like Oklahoma with Republican leadership and their roads are even worse. It is not so much a situation of the left always being wrong and the right always being right. I listened to a lot of people on the left in California for years on what they were going to do and it always came down to they needed the money for some kind of social program like welfare.”

Gannaway knows where his energy is going toward these days—electing John McCain for president. He is not alone. In a survey recently conducted by Roads & Bridges, the overwhelming majority favored McCain (49.3%) over Obama (21.6%). Almost 30% were undecided. When asked what will influence their choice for the White House, the economy (88%) carried the most weight, followed by the war in Iraq (69.7%), energy and material costs (63.2%) and federal funding (57.6%). The study polled engineers, contractors and government officials who form the 60,000 readership of Roads & Bridges magazine.

The top four issues on Gannaway’s mind are the war on terrorism, illegal immigration, taxes and trade.

“As far as the war on terror, I have seen Obama move toward more of center, but I do not believe it, especially if he gets in and it is a Democratically controlled Congress,” said Gannaway. “He will do whatever he wants [even if it goes against] the campaign promises.”

But according to the Roads & Bridges poll, what is hurting Obama more than anything is uncertainty. When asked how Obama will respond to issues like the next reauthorization bill, earmarks, infrastructure security, moving commerce, material prices and safety, most said they simply did not know how the Illinois senator would treat the transportation industry. McCain scored strongly in reader confidence on every topic, including privatization, except earmarks. That’s surprising, considering McCain’s loud public outcry against the crude political maneuver.

“I think Obama is naive and inexperienced for the magnitude of the job,” Dave Brinkley, construction inspector for the city of Prescott, Ariz., told Roads & Bridges. “I have no issues with the fact that he is making an effort to put up a great front and he is promising the world. It is a complicated world that we live in to get something through the system, much less get something through that will work.”

Being from Arizona, Brinkley probably knows more than the average American about McCain. Although he does not claim to be a McCain fan, he does appreciate the experience he would bring to the Oval Office.

“He will listen to both sides of the issues and will weigh the matter and make a determination based upon what he believes would be the right thing to do as opposed to what is politically correct,” Brinkley said. “It has been my experience watching him over the years that he makes rational decisions based on the facts that are presented.”

Frank Logan, a consultant for the North Carolina Department of Transportation and an Obama supporter, cannot vote for anyone who has a platform based on the current administration.

“I think the current administration has wrecked everything. The economy, everything,” he said. “Barack Obama is a young guy. He is not a Washington insider, and I think he is a little more measured in what he says and does. I just do not think there is any other choice.”

What’s the plan?

Obama has chalked the lines in the transportation arena, releasing a three-page plan titled “Barack Obama: Strengthening America’s Transportation Infrastructure.”

Security, rail and public transportation are recurring themes in the report, including a section on the strengthening of metropolitan planning to reduce traffic congestion. There, Obama takes on a smart-growth tone, pledging to build upon his efforts in the Senate to ensure more metropolitan planning organizations create policies to foster greater bicycle and pedestrian usage of roads and sidewalks. He also promises to provide state and local governments with the resources they need to address sprawl and create more livable communities.

Obama also supports the development of high-speed freight and passenger rail. “Providing passengers with safe high-speed rail will have significant environmental and metropolitan planning advantages and help diversify our nation’s transportation infrastructure,” the plan stated.

“I do like that [Obama] recognizes as fuel prices increase that rail transport, especially for goods, is a solid idea,” said Gannaway. “I like his plan, but I do not know if it is going to happen.”

Nobody knows if an increase in bridge maintenance is going to happen, either, under the Obama umbrella. His transportation plan barely touches the issue, saying only, “Obama will make strengthening our transportation systems, including our roads and bridges, a top priority.”

Obama does broach the subject of strengthening the infrastructure, while McCain has yet to really address it. His “transportation plan” involves lowering U.S. dependency on foreign oil and throwing more energy-efficient cars into mainstream travel. He fails to address design, construction or execution of anything related to roads or bridges.

As for the fate of the next reauthorization bill, which will be up for debate in September 2009, some who took the Roads & Bridges poll think a smooth passage is a no-brainer, while others view it as a no-win situation—at least in the immediate future.

“I do not think they are going to have a choice with the bridge collapse in Minnesota and some of the other things going on with the infrastructure in the country,” said Brinkley. “They have the squeaky wheel going. The professionals in our industry have been telling Congress and states for years that we have issues and we need to address them before it costs people their lives.”

“With what all that has to be done, with the mortgage crisis and the war in Iraq, it doesn’t look good,” said Logan. “I think [the transportation industry] will probably get the back burner over the next four years. It is going to be a mess for whomever gets in the White House.”

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