President Obama’s infrastructure investment plan, released officially Wednesday afternoon, is an important step in the direction of what America needs: a full-employment plan that puts Americans back to work rebuilding an America of shared prosperity.
But it is just a step, and a modest one at that, reflective of the constraints on the political agenda that have been imposed by the Washington political establishment. Progressives should not accept these limits – not when we have 16 percent unemployment rate in the construction industry and nearly 8 percent unemployment in the economy as a whole, and when we have literally trillions of dollars worth of projects that need doing to support future economic growth.
The president’s plan includes $50 billion in “immediate” investment in the nation’s infrastructure as part of the “fix-it-first” plan he first unveiled in the State of the Union address. That money would be spread out to address urgent needs of highways, bridges, transit systems and airports. But let’s put that $50 billion in context: The Federal Highway Administration in 1999 had calculated that it would need almost $71 billion just to bring the nation’s structurally deficient bridges up to standards. More recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that national spending on highways is only a bit more than half of what is needed to meet minimal standards, and spending on public transportation is only about 60 percent of the minimum needed. The total spending shortfall in 2010 in highways and public transportation was $71 billion – and growing.
Shortchanging spending on infrastructure imposes real costs on the economy and the quality of life of working people. A recent report by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that congestion on the nation’s highways costs the economy $121 billion a year in lost time and wasted fuel. As those costs grow, jobs will be lost: 400,000 net jobs by 2040, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. But when ASCE zeroed in on higher-end, knowledge and technology-based jobs that depend on efficient transportation networks, it found that the job loss in those categories by 2040 would exceed 1.3 million.
A major component of the president’s plan is a national infrastructure bank, an approach long championed by us and by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, among others. This infrastructure bank, structured properly, would allow governments to invite private capital to help finance the construction of major transportation and infrastructure projects. Unleashing some of the estimated $5 trillion in cash that is currently sitting in the sidelines would go a long way toward closing the gap between what we need to spend and what we’re actually spending.
If the administration’s $50 billion “fix-it-first” money were matched by a $50 billion in funding through an infrastructure bank, the country would be able to finance enough projects to directly put roughly 3 million people back to work. And having those workers back on the job would generate enough economic activity to create hundreds of thousands more jobs as their earnings cycle through the economy. That would close about a quarter of the jobs gap that was created by the Great Recession between the jobs that now exist and what would exist if the recession had not happened.
But the Obama administration would have been justified in going even bolder. Take funding: Federal highway and public transportation spending is covered by an 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline that has not changed since the early 1990s. Raising gasoline taxes is highly unpopular, but drivers who willingly shell out upwards of $4 of gallon for gasoline when the price increase lines the pockets of oil executives, speculators and overseas titans can be convinced to shell out a few extra pennies for a better commute. If not a gasoline tax increase, one alternative is to increase taxes at the wholesale or refinery level, where at least some of the costs would be absorbed by the oil companies rather than consumers.
There are several other ideas being considered for raising the money we need to rebuild our infrastructure. And we need to have bold, frank conversations now about how best to capitalize on a slack labor market and rock-bottom borrowing costs to tackle the urgent priority of bringing our infrastructure up to 21st century demands.
President Obama’s plan is not daring; it’s incremental. It will be up to us to push Congress toward the kind of bold, visionary infrastructure plan that has to be part of a full-employment agenda.
One way you can show your support for such an agenda is by signing a petition by the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA). The union is attempting to get 1 million people to sign onto its “Build America so America Works” message to Congress.
“The United States is the nation that has achieved the most advanced engineering pursuits to benefit its people and the world. We are the first to put a man on the moon, to build a super-highway system, to create unrivaled air and rail transportation, and first-class public spaces, such as schools. But today, we can no longer be assured of crossing the Mississippi River safely, of protecting families from failing dams or levees or of providing a transportation system that works,” the petition begins.
The petition calls for Congress “to make building America a national priority and redirect our nation’s resources to doing so.”
Making “building America” a national priority would make employing America a national priority as well – and that would focus the energy of politicians where it should be, rather than the manufactured crises of sequestration and debt.