fresh voices from the front lines of change







Okay, there was an election in Massachusetts yesterday but I’m not writing about it. I’m writing about something nobody noticed during the election. Infrastructure.

Lots of people drove to the polls. Other people traveled by train, walked on sidewalks, or communicated by wireless. Everybody used infrastructure, but nobody noticed it. That’s the trick about infrastructure. Nobody pays attention until it the sinkholes open up or the levees overflow. Nobody notices the construction jobs that aren’t created until it’s too late to stop the flood (or save the election).

At 11:00 am this morning (EST) the Building America’s Future coalition is announcing its support for an important new piece of legislation, the National Infrastructure Bank. This legislation would create a development bank that pools public and private funds to finance infrastructure construction and repair. On matters ranging from schools to windmills to commuter rail, the bank would generate funds needed for investment and a reasonable return for investors — a classic win-win.

The high powered, highly bipartisan Building America’s Future coalition is co-chaired by Ed Rendell, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City. Its goal is to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. To get people to pay attention before the sinkhole opens up. The Campaign for America’s Future’s own Bob Borosage will help make the case at today’s campaign launch.

Barack Obama
Campaign speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, June 21, 2008

“But when it comes to rebuilding America’s essential but crumbling infrastructure, we need to do more, not less. Cities across the Midwest are under water right now or courting disaster not just because of the weather, but because we’ve failed to protect them. 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. I’ll also launch a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will invest $60 billion over ten years, and create nearly two million new jobs. The work will be determined by what will maximize our safety, security, and shared prosperity. Instead of building bridges to nowhere, let’s build communities that meet the needs and reflect the dreams of our families. That’s what this bank will help us do.”

Investing in infrastructure solves two problems at once. First, it puts people to work. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that a $20 billion federal contribution for school repair could generate close to 250,000 skilled jobs.

Second, it solves the problem of decay. America’s trains are slow, our roads are potholed and our pipes are rusting. Industrialized around the turn of the twentieth century and built up after World War Two, our nation’s infrastructure is growing old. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $2.2 trillion is needed over five years to bring it back to good condition. No single government, agency or even lender has that kind of money. But we need to fix our infrastructure to thrive as a nation in a competitive twenty first century.

The National Infrastructure Bank is not a new idea. Europe has had a European Investment Bank since 1958, far longer than it has had a Euro. The board of governors consists of ministers from all the European Union member states. The member states pay into the bank’s base account, and the bank uses these funds to attract additional private-sector funding partners. The bank then uses the combined funds on projects to “help achieve EU objectives.”

In the United States, the idea has been championed by well-known public figures and financial experts. Felix Rohatyn, an American best known for helping New York City avoid bankruptcy in the 1970’s, who later became ambassador to France, has promoted the idea. Bernard L. Schwartz, former CEO of Loral Space and Communications, has been a vocal supporter. Together they served on a commission convened by the Center on Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC to examine America’s infrastructure deficit. The Commission’s chief recommendation in its 2006 report was the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank. Bills have been introduced since then by Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). The current bill HR 2521was introduced by Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). Finally, it looks like it might actually happen in America.

China is building high speed rail and opening new wind farms. Germany is upgrading its electrical grid. They’re doing it. We can too. We just need to stop complaining and get to work.

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