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Bloomberg Government: It’s time to raise the nation’s D+ infrastructure grade

By Secretary LaHood & Norma Jean Mattei

3/16/17

In his address to Congress, President Trump described a future in which “crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land,” and asked Congress to assemble a plan to provide a $1 trillion investment comprising public and private capital.

For decades, candidates and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and at all levels of government have made similar promises to repair, upgrade and modernize essential infrastructure. While many states have stepped up and made the tough choices to increase investment, significant action at the federal level remains lacking.

It is too early to know whether or not President Trump will succeed at compelling action where others have failed. Even as he called on Congress to increase funding for infrastructure – and in the wake of an expansive legislative proposal from Senate Democrats – communities across the country confront the realities of aging and creaky systems: congested roadways and runways, crowded and broken transit systems, crumbling schools, lead in drinking water pipes, bridges and other structures undermined by rising sea levels and increasingly intense storms.

The cumulative neglect of our infrastructure has resulted in a D+ grade according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, released last week. The overall grade is unchanged since the last Report Card in 2013. Although our country is growing and innovating, our infrastructure remains trapped in the past. Much of it was built more than a half century ago. The Oroville dam in northern California, for example, the nation’s tallest, was built in the early 1960s. Nearly 200,000 people had to be evacuated recently because of the dam’s damaged spillway.

Failing infrastructure has an enduring impact on quality of life and the economy. It costs hardworking families and businesses, through wasted time and fuel, higher prices for goods, vehicle repairs, lost work hours due to power or water disruptions and drained disposable income.

Further, between now and 2025, our nation needs more than $2 trillion in infrastructure investment beyond what we are already spending to close the investment gap. If we fail to close that gap, we will undercut our standing in the global economy, endangering 2.5 million American jobs, $3.9 trillion in U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) and $7 trillion in business losses.

These issues are daunting, but solvable. It starts with bipartisan leadership, planning and a clear vision for the dynamic needs ahead, including climate change, technological advancements and the complexity of national security. Leaders from all levels of government, business, labor and nonprofit organizations must prioritize projects with an eye toward critical benefits to society – while also planning for the costs of building, operating and maintaining the infrastructure for its entire lifespan. We urge creating incentives for state and local governments and the private sector to invest in maintenance, for example, and identifying a pipeline of infrastructure projects attractive to private sector investment and public-private partnerships.

Second, we must ensure increased, long-term, consistent investment. Solving our infrastructure problems requires public funding, coupled with innovative financing mechanisms, and any new infrastructure programs must not supplant existing ones. We recommend increasing investment from all levels of government and the private sector from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent of U.S. GDP by 2025. Moreover, we urge lawmakers to fix the Highway Trust Fund by raising the federal motor fuels tax and indexing it to inflation. Another funding approach would be to support infrastructure owners and operators to charge rates and fees that reflect the true cost of using, maintaining and improving infrastructure.

Third, we must utilize new approaches, materials and technologies to ensure our infrastructure is resilient and sustainable. Emerging technologies and shifting social, environmental and economic trends – autonomous vehicles, distributed power generation and storage, for example – should inform the development of new infrastructure to assure long-term utility. And research and development will help to modernize and extend the life of infrastructure, expedite overhauls and promote efficiencies.

President Trump is correct that the time has come for a new program of national rebuilding. Renewing the nation’s infrastructure and solving our problems will take collective action and require tough choices.

Every day of delay escalates our shared costs, jeopardizes our health and risks our security – an option our country, economy and communities can no longer afford.

 

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinions and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision makers. This column is written by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and ASCE President Norma Jean Mattei.