Building Our Way Out

The economy is sinking. Wages are flat, costs are rising and bridges are collapsing. Wall Street doesn’t know which way is up.

The bail out is coming now and the stimulus checks came in the spring. But three quarters of Americans (still) think the country is on the wrong track.

The answer is right before us. Bridges and dams and schools.

America’s World War II era infrastructure is starting to decay. One out of four bridges in the United States is “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.” Most drinking water and sewer pipes are more than 50 years old, and many are more than 100 years old. One third of our schools need extensive repair; 15,000 public schools have air that is unfit to breathe.

America needs rebuilding. And the American people need jobs. Put one and one together. Make two. And build a bridge while you’re at it.

It’s a real way out of our economic mess. Every $1 billion of federal funding invested in transportation infrastructure creates 47,500 jobs. Every $1 billion spent on our water infrastructure creates 57,400 jobs. Catching up on $20 billion in deferred school maintenance would generate 250,000 jobs.

But politicians, for the most part, resist this solution. Republicans see government spending and try to shut it down. Democrats see deficits and run for the hills.

These politicians underestimate the wisdom and prudence of the American people. A June survey of likely voters by Hart Research showed a country that wants more than stimulus. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of voters think the economy is facing “long-term, structural economic problems.” Only one-third (30 percent) say it is a “short-term economic downturn.”

Investing in physical infrastructure is among the most popular of long-term solutions. A June survey by Rockefeller Foundation found 82 percent support for “increasing government spending on things like public-works projects to help create jobs.”

People know it is expensive but they see the payoff down the road. It’s like buying a house or paying for college. Deficit now, benefit later.

Hart asked likely voters: “Which should be a higher priority for Congress: Expanding public investments that create jobs, even if that means increasing the budget deficit, OR reducing the budget deficit, even if that means not making new investments to create jobs.”

Expanding public investments solidly outscored reducing the deficit (48 percent vs. 37 percent). Expanding public investment is seen as greater priority in both “red states” (by a 12-point margin) and “blue states” (by a 10-point margin).

The preference holds even when the question is asked in political terms:

“Democrats in Congress favor passing new economic recovery legislation designed to boost the economy and create jobs by increasing investments in areas such as transportation, energy, health care, and education, and by helping families struggling with high food and energy prices.

President Bush and Republicans in Congress oppose the legislation, which they say is just more wasteful, pork-barrel spending and earmarks that will not help our economy and will lead to tax increases in the future.”

Again, people favored long-term investments: 52 percent of likely voters sided with investing Democrats. Only 36 percent sided with tax-cutting Republicans.

A few politicians are whispering in this direction. The Democrats occasionally try to include stimulus measures that include funding for bridge and school repair. Rep. James Oberstar, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has held hearings on the matter. Political coalitions that include such unlikely partners as The Chamber of Commerce and the Laborers International Union are striving to be heard.

Today, a broad cross-section of citizen groups signed “A Call for Common Sense” that included a demand that policymakers “invest in the real economy,” including “major public investment in new energy and conservation, rebuilding schools and infrastructure” and other measures “to get the economy going.”

It’s all good. It’s all steps in the right direction. But as the American government writes a check for $700 billion to bail out the banks, maybe it could find some money to rebuild our bridges. We need the work. We need the bridges. We need to start.

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