Big Ideas To Get America Working Rebuild Our Infrastructure

Dave Johnson

In the midst of the July heat wave, some Oklahoma City commuters got a nasty surprise as they drove down Interstate 44 one morning: an expansion joint on a 36-year-old bridge buckled.

Several vehicles were damaged as they drove across the broken joint before repair crews could close off the damage and begin repairs. Fortunately, aside from the damaged cars and the traffic delays caused by the repairs, there were no other ill effects—at least at that moment.

Big Ideas to Get America Working

That was a loud wake-up call, however, for any elected official who chose to hear it. As NewsOK reported, it was not just the heat, but “the age of the bridge” that was a factor in the buckling incident.

The reason incidents like this one keep popping up all over the country is that for decades now America has been putting off necessary investments in our public infrastructure—our roads, bridges, airports, ports and waterways, rail, levees, schools, water systems, energy systems, and other public facilities. This infrastructure meets the public’s safety and welfare needs, and supports the nation’s economic growth and competitiveness, but it is falling apart.

The American Society of Civil Engineers earlier this month estimated that the nation needs to spend $1.7 trillion over the next nine years just on its surface transportation network alone—almost double what is currently on the books. Being cheap on this front is costing us plenty: $130 billion in 2010, according to the ASCE, “including approximately $97 billion in vehicle operating costs, $32 billion in delays in travel time, $1.2 billion in safety costs, and $590 million in environmental costs.”

At the same time we have a jobs crisis: 13.9 million Americans officially out of work; another 8.3 million working part-time who would want full-time jobs, millions more who have pretty much thrown up their hands in today’s stagnant economy.

The answer to both problems is obvious: Put millions of people to work repairing and rebuilding our public infrastructure—now. Do it while the nation has an abundance of idle skilled labor, unused construction and manufacturing capacity, and record low borrowing costs. Ignore the deficit-mongers. This is essential for addressing today’s jobs crisis and tomorrow’s economic growth needs. Plus, investing in infrastructure costs less than the cost of high levels of unemployment: the lower tax revenues, loss of business activity, and all of the forms of government spending resulting from slow growth and increased joblessness.

“Maintaining our levees and dams isn’t pork-barrel spending, it’s an urgent priority, and that’s what we’ll do when I’m president.”Barack Obama, campaign speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, June 21, 2008

President Obama has had the right rhetoric when it comes to investing in infrastructure. But none of the plans getting serious consideration in Washington match the scale of the problem—and take advantage of an exceptional opportunity. Even the White House proposes to spend only $556 billion over six years on highways and public transportation.

Meanwhile, the conservative majority in Congress unabashedly wants to move the country backwards. A plan put forward by Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, that would authorize a scandalously measly $38 billion a year, roughly 35 percent less than the inadequate spending levels of 2009. This cutback in federal spending will actually kill jobs, not create them. But even more extremist forces among Republicans in Congress are seriously considering ending federal involvement on transportation altogether by allowing to expire on September 30 the federal gasoline tax that pays for transportation spending.

Doing What Is Obvious

Interviewed for a 60 Minutes 2010 story about Brazil’s economic success—including a 7 percent unemployment rate and 7.5 percent economic growth in 2010—Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said, “I have found out something amazing: the success of an elected official is in the art of doing what is obvious. It is what everyone knows needs to be done but some insist on doing differently.”

So, once again, let’s state the obvious: We have been deferring the maintenance of our infrastructure and now our roads and bridges and all the rest are literally crumbling. This is holding our economy back. This is degrading our standard of living.

Here are a few infrastructure facts:

  • The American Society of Civil Engineers has graded our infrastructure ‘D,’ estimating that $2.122 trillion must be spent just to bring it up to “satisfactory” condition. [American Society of Civil Engineers]
  • More than 25% of bridges in the United States need significant repairs and/or are handling more traffic than they were designed to carry. [Christian Science Monitor and U.S. Department of Transportation]
  • Nearly a third of all highway fatalities are related to substandard road conditions, obsolete road designs, or roadside hazards. [New America Foundation]
  • A significant water line bursts every two minutes in the United States. [The New York Times]
  • One in three schools are in bad enough condition “to interfere with the delivery of instruction.” [U.S. Department of Education]
  • In 2010, deficiencies in America’s roads, bridges, and transit systems cost American households and businesses more than $129 billion. [ASCE]
  • By 2020 the nation’s deteriorating surface transportation infrastructure will cost the American economy more than 870,000 jobs and suppress the growth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product by $3.1 trillion.” [ASCE ]
  • The quality of U.S. infrastructure is falling behind competitors like Brazil, China and India. [Urban Land Institute ]
  • If infrastructure needs are not addressed, within 10 years U.S. businesses will pay an added $430 billion in transportation costs, household incomes will fall by more than $7,000, and U.S. exports will fall by $28 billion. [ASCE]

“[T]here are many more worthy projects than there were dollars to fund them. I recognize that by their nature these projects often take time, and will therefore create jobs over time. But the need for jobs will also last beyond next year and the benefits of these investments will last years beyond that. So adding to this initiative to rebuild America’s infrastructure is the right thing to do.” —President Obama at the Brookings Institute, December 2009

An Infrastructure Jobs Agenda

We need to drive a bold agenda for repairing and expanding our public assets into the national debate, making the case for doing the work now that will create good, middle-class jobs and establish the foundation for future sustainable economic growth. Here are some of the elements:

  • Reauthorize the six-year surface transportation reauthorization bill, which has been caught in conservative gridlock for more than two years, at no less than the $556 billion that the White House has requested. According to the Economic Policy Institute, $500 billion invested in transportation infrastructure can produce 7.2 million new jobs, including 3,236,686 construction jobs, 761,321 manufacturing jobs, and 625,081 jobs in business and professional services.
  • Create national and state infrastructure banks (iBanks) that can leverage about $640 billion in private investments from a $10 billion federal contribution. [Senator John Kerry]
  • Invest $20 billion in school construction, maintenance and greening, which can generate 250,000 skilled jobs. [Economic Policy Institute and FAST!]
  • Implement The National Broadband Plan, which “will create thousands, if not millions, of jobs,” and can be funded by auctioning broadcast spectrum. [National Broadband Plan]
  • Build a high-speed rail network with U.S.-manufactured rail cars. That would create millions of green jobs nationwide and pay for itself by significantly reducing our $700 billion-a-year oil purchase trade deficit. [U.S. High Speed Rail Association, United States Conference of Mayors]

Infrastructure investments equal to about 60 percent of what Americans spend on fast food each year ($78 billion of approximately, $130 billion), would protect 1.1 million jobs, save Americans 180 million hours in travel time each year, deliver an average of $1,060 to each family and protect $10,000 in GDP for every man, woman and child in the U.S., according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“Businesses depend on a transportation network that is reliable, fast, safe and cost-effective. Unfortunately, increasing congestion due to crumbling transportation infrastructure disrupts these important connections and imposes additional costs on workers and employers alike. As congestion increases system-wide, supply chains and cargo shipments are frequently disrupted and the cost of doing business increases.” – U.S. Chamber of Commerce statement at “FasterBetterSafer

The Conservative War Against Infrastructure Spending

Conservatives in Congress and in state governments, egged on by right-wing think tanks, are actively opposing increased public spending on maintaining and modernizing our infrastructure. Republican governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin refused federal dollars for high-speed rail projects in their states. New Jersey’s Republican governor rejected federal funding to expand a 100-year-old rail tunnel connecting his state to New York, costing the state thousands of jobs.

Michelle Malkin denounces infrastructure spending as just “more spending” and calls an infrastructure bank a “government slush fund.” The Heritage Foundation actually says that government spending on public infrastructure is bad for the economy and “may even yield a net loss in jobs.” Such spending, a Heritage Foundation article says, is just “extracting money from one part of the economy and spending it elsewhere.” Other conservatives argue maintaining the infrastructure is just “more Obama spending,” or just denigrate it as more “tax and spend.”

This is preposterous. Conservatives seem unaware that they are living off of the past savings account of infrastructure that was built up starting in the FDR years, through Eisenhower’s investment in an interstate highway system and into the good years of the 1960s and 1970s. This is what enabled businesses to prosper and people in the middle class to improve their quality of life. The social contract that We, the People agreed to was that businesses and people who did well paid back by pitching in to keep the network system of public assets up to date.

But now we’re in 2011 with a crumbling system, with bursting water pipes just one symptom of the decay. Our economy and our businesses cannot continue to compete in a world where our competitors are putting hundreds of billions of dollars into modern, 21st-century high-technology national public infrastructures and Republicans won’t even let us fill potholes.

Let’s call the conservative war on infrastructure spending what it is: It is a job killer and a threat to our economic future. Their alternative, converting public assets into private enterprises, also violates the social contract that is at the core of our democracy.

In “Tax Cuts Are Theft,” I wrote:

The American Social Contract: We, the People built our democracy and the empowerment and protections it bestows. We built the infrastructure, schools and all of the public structures, laws, courts, monetary system, etc. that enable enterprise to prosper. That prosperity is the bounty of our democracy and by contract it is supposed to be shared and reinvested. That is the contract. Our system enables some people to become wealthy but all of us are supposed to benefit from this system. Why else would We, the People have set up this system, if not for the benefit of We, the People?

When Congress returns from its recess next month, it will be up to us to focus lawmakers’ attention on the people who can’t take a job they need because the bus route that would take them to that job just got canceled, or the drivers who face daily mind-numbing commutes because the road network could not expand to accommodate the growth of the community, or the students who are too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter because there is no money to weatherize their school building. And it is up to us to focus lawmakers’ attention on the unemployed people who could be put to work today addressing all of those issues.


Saying It Yet Again

Recently on the Thom Hartmann TV show, “The Big Picture,” I talked about infrastructure. (I start at 19 minutes.)


Isaiah J. Poole contributed to this post.

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