In a month’s time, funding and authorization for surface transportation projects across the U.S. will expire. An extension is expected, but that is just a band-aid, and everyone knows the terms will not be sufficient to meet the infrastructure challenges our country currently faces. In order to maximize our nation’s economic strength we need to address these challenges over the long term.  

This was the conclusion reached by a variety of experts who spoke during a recent panel discussion in Washington called America on the Move: Investing in U.S. Infrastructure, which was sponsored by The Alliance for American Competitiveness, of which Caterpillar is a member. Treasury Secretary Jack LewJacob (Jack) Joseph LewBipartisan bill would force Treasury to put Tubman on bill Top conservative rails against ‘clean’ debt limit increase Trump mocked Obama for three chiefs of staff in three years MORE and Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxWeek ahead in tech: Lawmakers turn focus to self-driving cars Six contenders to be Uber's new CEO Obama’s Transportation chief given Super Bowl tickets by Hollywood studio exec MORE discussed the Obama administration’s infrastructure funding proposals. Separately, we joined Chris Leslie, president and chief executive officer of the Macquarie Infrastructure Partners Inc., to discuss why an upgraded infrastructure is essential for America’s economic competitiveness in the global marketplace.

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As proof for this point, we discussed our real world experiences in dealing with infrastructure challenges. For example, Caterpillar ships more than 12 billion tons of products annually all over the world even though doing so is not always easy. Difficulties often arise when the company moves products on roads and in deep water ports across the United States. The expansion of the Panama Canal presents a particular concern, as well as an opportunity. The new capacity that will be added to the Canal must be matched with additional capacity at our ports here at home. Unfortunately, that process has been slowed by bureaucracy and red tape. Without additional capacity to handle the significant increase in cargo at our ports, experts say cumulative costs of shipping delays could reach $7 billion this year and climb as high as $37 billion in 2016. Companies like Caterpillar are working every day to remain competitive in the global economy, but we need the ability to operate logistically with real velocity in order to do so.

The state of the nation’s infrastructure impacts manufacturing investment decisions daily.  In particular, companies gauge three major logistics factors when they are thinking about investing in a manufacturing facility: aging infrastructure, velocity and rail connections to a port. Since time is money, manufacturers want to move materials to market as quickly as possible.  Moving raw materials to the facilities can also be excessively time consuming. We can do better. 

The debate is now focused on how to pay for necessary upgrades to our nation’s aging infrastructure. It’s obviously reasonable for users of highways and bridges to ask what they would get in return for their investment if they have to pay more. The taxpayers want to know what they’re getting for their money. That’s why devising a responsible funding solution is vital, not just to the future of infrastructure but also to our nation’s ability to compete in the global economy.  

It is equally important to formulate a plan that prioritizes the country’s infrastructure needs and allows the government to immediately invest dollars in projects that provide the best long-term competitive boost for our economy.  Without that blueprint, lawmakers run the risk of squandering the opportunity to build a foundation for future economic growth. 

Companies like Caterpillar can’t wait. They have to act quickly in order to deal with the many shortcomings of our nation’s infrastructure – otherwise, these opportunities may go to companies overseas.  Congress and the Administration must now deal with the issue as well.  The business clock is moving faster and faster. We can’t wait much longer for real action.  

Policymakers should be thinking on parallel tracks – how best to improve our infrastructure and then how to fund that program. Just as important as the funding question is whether our nation’s infrastructure will get us to where we need to be. 

At stake is no less than America’s competiveness in the global marketplace and American jobs. As policymakers move forward on infrastructure legislation, they should take the long view.

Crespo is vice president and chief procurement officer for Caterpillar. Barbour was governor of Mississippi from 2004 to 2012, chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997, and is a founding partner of the BGR Group lobbying firm.