Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a leader of a coalition calling for increased federal funding for infrastructure, said yesterday that he plans to invite the candidates for president to discuss their infrastructure plans in order to raise awareness of the issue after the primary elections.

"Once there are two candidates, we are going to try to get infrastructure high on the radar screen," Rendell told state and local transit officials attending the American Public Transportation Association's legislative conference here. "We are going to try to [hold] a national infrastructure forum - not a debate - and have each candidate come and talk for a half hour on their plans for infrastructure."

Rendell, along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, leads Building America's Future, a bipartisan coalition of public officials calling for increased federal funding of the nation's infrastructure.

Rendell, who supports Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to be the Democratic nominee over Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., noted that both candidates support pending infrastructure initiatives.

Clinton and Obama are both cosponsors of legislation introduced by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., that would establish a national infrastructure bank that could issue up to $60 billion of taxable tax-credit bonds to help finance publicly owned projects, such improvements or additions to mass transit networks, housing properties, roads, bridges, or drinking and wastewater systems. Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over mass transit policy, is scheduled to hold hearing on his proposal today.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Republican presidential candidate, has not yet weighed in on the matter, but is expected to do so, Rendell said, adding that Schwarzenegger, who recently endorsed McCain, will press him on the issue.

The Pennsylvania governor pointed out that over the last 20 years federal spending on infrastructure has averaged just 3.5% to 4% of total non-defense spending. However, between 1956 and 1966, infrastructure spending as a share of total non-defense federal expenditures was approximately 10%.

The decline in federal infrastructure funding comes as China and other developing and developed nations have increased funding.

In terms of gross domestic product, the U.S. spends about 0.5% on infrastructure, whereas "China is spending 9% of its GDP on infrastructure, India 8%," Rendell said, adding that Spain is spending 10% and Japan is spending 6% of GDP.

He noted that the years of reduced spending translates into over $1 trillion in infrastructure needs over the next five years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

"If we don't meet this challenge, we are going to be in trouble for so many different reasons," including possibly becoming less economically competitive with other nations, he said.

Rendell hopes that his coalition will influence the debate as lawmakers gear up to draft legislation that would replace the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users. Typically known as SAFETEA-LU, the law currently authorizes funding for highway and transit programs and is set to expire next year after Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2009.

"This is our time, this is our shot," he said. "We can't wait."

Wisconsin Secretary of Transportation Frank Busalacchi, who also addressed the group, echoed Rendell's comments.

"Our nation is entering a crucial period in terms of formulating strategic transportation policies," he said, adding that now is the time to lobby Congress.

Busalacchi served on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which earlier this year released a report that made several recommendations for the next transportation bill, including boosting the federal gas tax by as much as eight cents a year over five years.

"We believe that this new vision will require significant new investments," Busalacchi said. "At the center ... we need a strong federal partnership to help states carry out this vision."

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