Effectively managing a reliable and efficient infrastructure – currently valued at $8 trillion – is as important to the fabric of American life as our nation’s constitutional obligation to national security.
Much like our military, such a vital component of American life cannot be ignored even during situations when the government is failing us like it is with the ongoing budget crisis in Washington. Minor disruptions to the system immediately impact the quality of life through higher prices for groceries, the cost of filling up our cars and the creation and operation of local businesses.
Unfortunately our current infrastructure started crumbling underneath us long before Washington reached the current standstill in governing. A lack of vision and investment that involves both public and private sector participation has resulted in the disrepair of roads and bridges and increasingly inaccessible ports.
The reality is not lost on U.S. consumers. Fully 94 percent of respondents to a recent CG/LA Infrastructure survey said that the U.S. has no infrastructure plan, and 77 percent indicated that the performance of the federal government in infrastructure policy is either poor or substandard.
This is unacceptable.
It is our government’s democratic role – indeed its responsibility – to maintain a close working relationship with private free market enterprise to support a world-class, forward-thinking infrastructure program.
We have before us the opportunity to implement a straightforward and workable three-part solution involving the private sector that would greatly revitalize our current nationwide system.
First, infrastructure needs to be recognized as an immediate bipartisan priority in Washington on par with our commitment to the Armed Services.
For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of our ports, waterways, wetlands and much of our hydropower – arguably the core of our competitiveness in global trade – yet its annual budget of $4.5 billion doesn’t make a dent in its annual infrastructure demands exceeding $65 billion.
At the same time, one of our greatest economic and military competitors on the world stage, China, now invests double the amount of the U.S. in its infrastructure development and maintenance.
A lack of investment in Army Corps projects is devastating to the ability of our businesses to remain globally competitive.
The second priority needs to include doubling down on our own level of investment in infrastructure, but doing so without reaching into the already strained federal budget or raising taxes, an issue on which both Democrats and Republicans wholeheartedly agree.
It will require embracing the private sector’s willingness to invest in transit, highways, ports and electricity transmission projects. Accounting for transit projects alone, there are currently $85 billion repair and rehabilitation opportunities available for private sector investment, yet they currently sit idle because of a lack of creative engagement between the government and willing investors.
Additionally, at $8 trillion the U.S. boasts the largest inventory of infrastructure stock in the world, at least half of which is held by the public. Allowing for private sector access could inject as much as $100 billion into our infrastructure budget annually for the next 10 years alone.
Third, the U.S. needs a streamlined infrastructure budget that incorporates a plan and a vision. There is currently no identifiable program or executive in the White House in charge of infrastructure, just a collection of agency heads with no coordination or strong leadership.
We need to begin a dialogue about consolidating the various departments into an entity entirely focused on global competitiveness, making the right projects happen as quickly, efficiently and productively as possible.
These three initiatives would easily double our infrastructure commitment and enable us to sustain that level for at least 10 years, and in the process create nearly 7 million high-paying construction and manufacturing jobs.
In a bipartisan way, it would enable us to address the urgent infrastructure issues that our country faces without impacting the federal budget or raising taxes. It would stop the disintegration of our common assets and revitalize the infrastructure that makes us globally competitive with countries like China. It would ensure the constant creation of economic opportunity for all of our citizens.
In fact, a Chinese friend of mine recently asked with clear skepticism if we can really identify and motivate the leadership and public-private sector investment to carry this out.
My answer? We have to do it, and so we will. The quality of life to which we have grown accustomed depends upon it.
Anderson is a member of the World Economic Forum and Founder of the Strategic Infrastructure Leadership Forum.