The missing ingredient for American infrastructure

In their dueling speeches in Detroit last week, Trump and Clinton presented radically different visions for the U.S. economy.   

Yet, for all their disagreement, the candidates found common ground on one high-profile economic issue: infrastructure.  With this week's proposals, the two candidates were actually struggling to outdo each other on who would do the most to fund public works.  

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This agreement on infrastructure is long overdue. Every single day in New York, Washington, and other cities, glitches in decades-old and underfunded subway systems keep thousands of people delayed underground. More than 63,000 bridges throughout the country are in need of major repairs, and at least 32% of roads are in poor condition. And it’s not just transportation. As Flint tragically revealed, infrastructure failures can devastate communities and actually ruin lives. 

The glimmerings of bipartisan agreement are good news. But it’ll take more than politicians’ token interest—and even financial commitment—to solve these problems.  Infrastructure upgrades are tough.  They can be disruptive to the public, entail cost overruns, and take years to complete, extending past the electoral cycles that allow politicians to claim credit for success.  Fixing U.S. infrastructure will require two ingredients that are often in short supply: patience and political will. 

In decades’ past, America had powerful constituencies that would fight for infrastructure projects and see them through to completion: the engineers that created and maintained the technologies that were deployed on projects, the workers and unions that powered the projects, and the firms that built equipment and needed reliable ways to move goods and materials.  This manufacturing coalition, starting from the New Deal, brought us the roads, bridges, trains, and utilities that we still rely on today. It’s true, they often had selfish reasons for promoting infrastructure investments.  But they nonetheless served the public interest. 

With the loss of domestic manufacturing over recent decades, we no longer have the built-in political will that supported infrastructure. We’re also left without a crucial source of technological innovation, which is vital for infrastructure improvement.  The only way to nurture important technologies—like smart meters that automatically regulate energy use, computer-based safety features for railways, or more efficient ways of building and maintaining infrastructure—is with a serious domestic manufacturing base.  While we often assume it's easy to conceive a new idea in Ohio and manufacture it in China, real innovation requires complete ecosystems where the conception of ideas, their production, and their improvement all happen together.

Think of it this way: If you're overseeing the production line on a wind turbine or train car, you can see bottlenecks or opportunities in the process and come up with ways to improve it. And if you're physically creating a product, you can experiment with how different components cross-pollinate to create something new.

That’s one reason Germany, with its extensive manufacturing base, not only regularly upgrades its infrastructure but also pioneers next-generation technologies, from solar and wind power to the most reliable highways and rail systems.

With the loss of so much domestic manufacturing in the U.S., it’s no surprise that we’re struggling to innovate or even maintain American infrastructure.  While the next president should keep up the promises to boost investment, to repair our roads, bridges, water systems, and broader public works, these promises alone won’t get the job done. 

To rebuild infrastructure, we need to restore the manufacturing base.  There’s no shortage of ideas for doing so.

For starters, ending incentives for offshoring would save U.S. manufacturing jobs and directly help build and maintain our infrastructure. The big and bulky products required for public works—rail cars, smart computer systems, steel girders—are expensive and time-consuming to ship across oceans.  Smart tax policies can go a long way toward bringing their production back to our borders.

To restore the production base, we also need to rebuild interest in manufacturing careers. In 2009, just 18% of new university graduates completed a bachelor’s degree in technical areas like engineering, compared to 24% in the 1990s. In popular media, Americans have been inundated with the wrong-headed message that good careers are only based in an office and result from classroom study, forgetting that apprenticeships on a shop floor or project site can be as or more rewarding.  Policymakers can rebuild the manufacturing workforce by implementing simple but important ideas, like apprenticeships and shop class in schools. 

Finally, we need innovation policy that helps turn high-level research into useful products we can make in America. As Sridhar Kota, a manufacturing expert at the University of Michigan and former adviser to President Obama, puts it, when it comes to “R&D,” we need to reconnect the “R” with the “D”. This means investing in practical applications of cutting edge science research that can be used for infrastructure---like smart sensors, alternative energy sources, and even hyperloops.

Bipartisan agreement on infrastructure is an exciting development.  But if we’re really going to fix our roads, bridges, power grids, and water systems—we need to think bigger.  We need to restore American manufacturing.

Neil Padukone is an author and U.S. Department of Transportation University Transportation Center Scholar. He has advised cities and national governments on economic development and social policy. Justin Talbot-Zorn is a policy consultant and Truman National Security Fellow.  He served as Legislative Director to three Democratic Members of Congress.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.