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The Hill: Building infrastructure for the future can bring country together

By Former Sec. and Rep. Ray LaHood (R-ILL.) and Former Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA), Contributors

12/04/16

As President-elect Donald Trump and the incoming Congress turn to the work of governing, we need opportunities to bring the country together. We need to think big.

And what we do next should be about our future, not the past.

Luckily, there is one legislative issue that is well poised for positive action: Rebuilding America's roads, bridges, ports, electric grid, water systems, airports, rails and expanding broadband.

It is time to build the kind of infrastructure that can power our economy through the rest of this century and keep us globally competitive.

Everyone is tired of sitting in congestion on our roads or wasting time on our runways. Our mass transit systems are chronically on the verge of breakdown.

No other issue received such unanimous support over the past year, and nothing else can dramatically improve the lives of so many Americans.

As Trump said in his acceptance speech, "[We will] rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We're going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it."

The need for improvement is overwhelming. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our infrastructure a D+ grade. Its most recent report found that the gap between what we are spending and what we need to spend could cost the economy almost $4 trillion in gross domestic product (GDP) in the next decade, killing 2.5 million jobs by 2025.

The World Economic Forum ranks the competitiveness of U.S. infrastructure as No. 11 — down from No. 1 in 2005. According to the U.S. Travel Association, within 10 years, 25 of the nation’s top 30 airports will suffer "day-before-Thanksgiving" congestion at least two days a week.

Now is the time, while borrowing rates are still low, to take sweeping action and make up for lost years of deferred maintenance.

There have been modest signs of progress lately. Congress approved a $305 billion transportation plan last year. More than 25 states have increased transportation investment since 2013, and 70 percent of the local infrastructure referenda on the ballots this year passed.

But these efforts are like trying to fill a giant pothole one teaspoon at a time.

We are very encouraged by the president-elect's desire to see a $1 trillion infrastructure plan and an expanded role for private investment. It would be wise for everyone to refrain from rushing to judgment on an infrastructure package before Trump has released any details of what he'd like to see in a plan.

However, we feel that any plan must have a significant funding component and identify long-term revenue sources. Most infrastructure projects will not attract enough private investment alone to bring them to fruition or to a state of good repair. Dedicated funding is critical to making projects a reality.

With that in mind, we offer the following recommendations.

1. We need policies that are forward-looking and address rapidly changing transportation technology.

Smarter roads that communicate with vehicles, and vehicles that communicate with each other, are coming fast. Cities are preparing for autonomous vehicles. In areas with severe congestion, dynamically priced lanes are changing tolls in real-time, based on congestion levels.

Regulation needs to keep up with these advancements, not hinder them.

2. The process of creating policy needs to be more transparent and efficient and must include clear criteria for assessing the economic significance of a project.

With such criteria, we can prioritize projects that can transform a region. There are undoubtedly dozens, if not hundreds, of projects around the country that deserve attention.

Bringing high speed rail to the Northeast Corridor and modernizing the Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River are just two examples of potentially transformational projects. We also need to reward innovation with competitive grants that catalyze pilot projects and further streamline the project approval process. 

3. We need real progress on paying for these critical investments, in the short and long term.

There are revenue-neutral steps that can make an immediate economic impact, such as renewing Build America Bonds and eliminating federal restrictions on tolling interstate highways. That would help municipalities while Congress considers comprehensive tax reform, including repatriation of profits held overseas.

Repatriation could provide a short-term bridge while long-term solutions are identified, such as increasing and indexing the gas tax, expanding the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), creating a national capital budget, transitioning to a road user charge, establishing a national infrastructure bank that will attract private investment, and encouraging more public-private partnerships.

As a nation, we've done big things before. The country desperately needs President-elect Trump and Congress to look at what can unite us, not what divides us.

The one thing that can improve the quality of life for all Americans and improve our economic competitiveness is to meet these challenges head on and build the infrastructure of tomorrow. 

 

Ray LaHood is a former U.S. Transportation secretary and Ed Rendell is a former Pennsylvania governor. Both are co-chairs of Building America's Future.