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COMMENT It’s time for the infrastructure issue to hit the campaign trail

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This year's race for the White House could be closer than any election in recent memory. As the remaining candidates geared up for Super Tuesday in early February, it was still anyone's guess as to who would win the eventual nominations for November's presidential election.

While the issues can sometimes take a back seat once candidates get carried away by momentum, the sad truth is that one of the issues that should be closest to the steel industry's heart—the pressing need for investment in infrastructure—never gained much attention.

Last year's bridge collapse in Minnesota brought a brief spasm of attention to the infrastructure crisis in the United States, but any enthusiasm for rebuilding roads, bridges and other critical transportation arteries of the country soon died away. This year's crop of presidential candidates has hardly helped publicize the cause, with most making little more than passing mention of the serious problems afflicting America's infrastructure.

Hillary Clinton has probably been the most vociferous, having launched her "Rebuild America" plan not long after the Minnesota tragedy. "Something is very, very wrong when, at the dawn of the 21st Century, in the richest country on Earth, people are actually nervous about driving over bridges for fear that they'll collapse," she said in a statement at the time.

The other candidates have only touched on the issue. Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama, called out President Bush for not mentioning infrastructure spending in January's State of the Union address. Otherwise, he's been fairly quiet on the issue, briefly talking about the need to upgrade rural infrastructure.

The Republicans have been virtually mute with the exception of Mike Huckabee, who in a recent debate said that investment in infrastructure, instead of tax rebates, would best stimulate the nation's economy. "Infrastructure in this country has been neglected . . . I don't think there's a governor in this country that wouldn't tell you that you'll create more jobs and you'll build it with American workers, American concrete and American steel. That's stimulus," he said.

John McCain, who blamed Congress for the bridge collapse, has had little to say on the issue, other than to promote the protection of critical infrastructure as part of his very public stance on national security. Mitt Romney has been perhaps the quietest of all, and a search of his public statements turned up virtually nothing on the subject from the former Massachusetts governor.

For those in the steel business, and indeed in the metals sector in general, this lack of attention to such a critical issue should be reason for concern.

It's obvious that a major rebuild of highways, bridges and dams, not to mention airport runways (anyone not been held up when flying lately?), would provide a major fillip for steel demand. But more than that, anyone in the metals business, whether a producer, service center or consumer, ought to be mightily concerned about the consequences if the necessary investment in the fabric of the country is not made.

The United States has become increasingly reliant on imports of steel and metals. As a result, shipments of steel and metal products generally have further to travel from producer to consumer than was the case when the whole cycle was concentrated in the Rust Belt. Longer distances mean more traffic on railways, river and especially roads. But the infrastructure on which this freight relies is creaking badly.

Some analysts have warned that if the current rate of spending is not dramatically increased, large parts of the East and West coasts, and swathes of the Midwest, will be essentially gridlocked by 2035.

So while a rise in orders for beams and rebars might provide a nice short-term boost to the bottom line, those in the steel and metals industry should be more concerned about the long-term impact of inaction. And that might be worth thinking about when we visit the polls in November.

DAVID BROOKS

SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT


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