Talking Transit Funding With Construction Honcho Denise Richardson

General Contractors Association Managing Director Denise Richardson. Photo: GCA

Transportation infrastructure is big business. With tens of billions of dollars at stake, nobody tracks the financial health of the nation’s transit and road systems more closely than the construction industry. And right now, the future of transportation funding nationwide is hazy indeed.

To get some perspective on the state of transportation funding, we sat down with Denise Richardson, the managing director of the General Contractors Association. Representing the New York region’s heavy construction contractors, Richardson is a major voice for transportation investments. With experience in city and state government, she’s a leading authority on the ins and outs of infrastructure. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. [Click here for a fuller version of the interview, with a greater focus on New York.]

“All this short-term thinking plays into what ultimately becomes a series of bad planning decisions, because everything is left until it’s a crisis.”

When asked if she was worried that some version of the House GOP transportation proposal “coming back to life,” Richardson said:

DR: I think that the House never expected the amount of pushback nationwide, and from cities that you would not think of as being heavily transit dependent.

NK: It was something to watch.

DR: It was. I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. First of all, I enjoyed it because the GCA was among the first to jump on the issue and talk to congressmen around the country. A lot of our members are national and international firms.

And you saw other places around the country that have primarily bus networks look at this and say, “Wait a minute, if we want to build a new depot and we want to apply for federal funding, we’re not going to get it.” So you saw this real grassroots movement.

From a democracy perspective, the House leadership, wrapping themselves in their Tea Party flag, said, “This is not what we want the federal government to stand for.” To see another group of people from all around the country say, “Well wait a minute, yes we do,” was a really effective use of government, because you had two very different views of what government is. And in the end, the House was forced to withdraw their proposal.

The fact that they have not been able to put forward a new version of a transportation bill is a tremendous disservice to everybody. I don’t know if by the time November comes that’s going to be a big election issue. But I would certainly think that people around the country would sit back and say, “This House that we elected two years ago, because we wanted a different philosophy of government, what have they really accomplished?” And I think it will be interesting to see that assessment.

NK: Can you explain, in concrete terms, why the short-term extensions pose a challenge to getting projects going efficiently?

DR: On a series of short-term extensions, you’re always making short-term business decisions. Because we don’t know where we’re going to stand over the next three to five years in terms of a portfolio of work, we’re not going to make the decisions to invest in new equipment, buy a new building, to expand our space, hire 30 or 40 more people in anticipation of work coming down the road. We don’t know what’s going to be there. Short-term decisions aren’t good for the economy.

For an agency, look at DOT’s decision to stop the environmental review process for the cantilever section of the BQE. It’s an important project, but in the scheme of all the priorities, it wasn’t at the top of the list. So they had to make the very difficult decision to stop the work and basically say, “Let’s wait until the project becomes more critical.” Which is not the way you make infrastructure decisions. All this short-term thinking plays into what ultimately becomes a series of bad planning decisions, because everything is left until it’s a crisis.