Cooper: Sandy shows that we need a national infrastructure council

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media at Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media at Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. (Nov. 20, 2012) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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Two of the nation's most powerful governors, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have practically been begging for federal help to address what they estimate is nearly $80 billion in damage and emergency response costs due to superstorm Sandy. There's no question that the devastation is horrific. Long Island will be working to recover for months and years to come. But the best way to approach assessing the damage and rebuilding deserves some serious examination. Unfortunately, at the federal level, there is no one person or office where a careful analysis and well-directed funding can be put to use to help these governors repair their damaged communities and infrastructure.

Instead of forming the short term hurricane rebuilding task force, the president should put in place a permanent national infrastructure council, a ready team of experts to launch a smart rebuilding campaign for this disaster and our nation's infrastructure needs in general. Members would come from every federal agency, department, and bureau responsible for any aspect of public infrastructure.

We don't need an act of Congress to make this happen. The president's pen is all that's needed to bring together the disparate pieces of the federal government for this purpose.

Given the number of homes damaged, the president chose Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan to lead the federal response in New York State. Donovan is certainly one of the most talented members of the president's cabinet and he is up to the task of restoring the housing stock in the affected communities. His previous experience as commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development means he knows the local terrain.

But it will take much more knowledge to command and shepherd the breadth of resources needed to repair the damaged infrastructure. Donovan will have to navigate the arcane business practices of the Army Corps of Engineers, who will be expected to restore ruined levees and beach fronts as well as damaged ports. The nearly endless list of federal Department of Transportation programs with jurisdiction over highways and transit, along with the department's extra-jurisdictional role regulating pipeline safety, are another complication.

To address the problem of downed power lines, he will find confounding utility regulation. Mostly state-based enterprises, power utilities are also subject to the obscure and somewhat impenetrable purview of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Environmental Protection Agency will be knocking on his door to discuss water system repairs and stormwater overload improvements.

Let's hope that Secretary Donovan meets this challenge. It is imperative that the White House put its muscle into the newly formed Sandy task force by sending the message to its agencies that the secretary must succeed.

But, really does this make sense? In the most powerful nation on Earth, this is the best we can do? We ask someone to lead the federal effort to rebuild New York's wrecked landscape knowing full well there is no single entity, office or venue where he can get the support he needs to succeed.

How have we come this far without one entity in the federal government charged with helping to ensure proper stewardship and repair of our infrastructure?

Now more than ever, the formation of a national infrastructure council is urgent. It could improve the impact of federal infrastructure investments by ensuring that agencies align investments and regulations to more wisely rebuild and expand our infrastructure. It would be a venue for agencies to work together on strategies to make our infrastructure more able to withstand what inevitably will be more frequent floods, storms, heat waves and other consequences of climate change. Right after Sandy, Cuomo jokingly said, "We have a hundred-year flood every two years." Let's hope that's an exaggeration, but he accurately speaks to the direness of the situation.

To mitigate future damages and costs, President Barack Obama could amend the Sandy task force established by executive order. He could form this council now and establish as its first charge the support of Secretary Donovan's efforts.

Donna Cooper is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a research group in Washington. In September, she wrote a report calling for the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank and Infrastructure Planning Council.

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