How we can put a lost generation of American infrastructure behind us
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While fierce partisanship in Washington is alive and well, an opening still exists for action on a serious plan to modernize our transportation infrastructure. No, I am not drinking Kool-Aid. We have a president who continues to talk about “going big” on a $1 trillion plan. Many in Congress are saying infrastructure investment is a priority. And Americans and businesses are weary of slow commutes and a transportation system that just can’t keep up with their needs. This sure feels like an opening.

Why not? The needs are dire. The nation’s civil engineers estimate it will take $4.6 trillion to reverse decades of neglect. This is a daunting number indeed, but it reflects a price tag that comes with a lost generation of infrastructure upkeep and modernization.

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To keep steering this debate in a positive direction, some clarity on key issues is required. How we pay for a grand infrastructure plan is not just an academic question. It is a public question. Most experts agree that we cannot toll our way to a $1 trillion investment plan by simply opening the spigot for a slew of public-private partnerships, or P3s.

 

The president and Congress will have to tell the voters the truth: you get the infrastructure that you pay for. Fixed payments by governments to the private sector — in addition to the potential impacts these arrangements have on public-sector workers and standards of service and safety — will not get us to a $1 trillion package, either. A massive infusion of new federal funds will.

The reality is there are no shortcuts or gimmicks that cancel the need for robust federal funding. This isn’t just my opinion. It is the opinion of many Republicans and Democrats who believe simply using the tax code to incentivize infrastructure spending will fall well short. Whatever the solution, politicians need to embrace a long-term, sustainable funding stream. The final package could certainly come together through a variety of approaches, but ultimately it must solve the structural funding problems found in every sector of transportation that fuels today’s infrastructure crisis.

It is also critical to keep the plan broad. It has to address transportation system-wide problems. While our congested highway network and 60,000 structurally deficient bridges are prominent in any discussion about transportation infrastructure needs, the ugly underbelly of this debate is that almost every segment of our transportation system is in desperate need of help.

Uncompetitive and undercapitalized ports, starving transit systems like D.C.’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), Amtrak’s network utilizing infrastructure more than a century old with barely enough money every year to survive, and a poorly funded Federal Aviation Administration and airline system, are among many painful symbols of this crisis. Unlike some problems in life, solving these problems requires new federal resources. Period.

Structural job market problems are front and center here as well. Our economy suffers from anemic growth and a declining supply of quality jobs. That is why too many Americans are unemployed or underemployed. It is why millions have seen flat or declining wages and why so many are falling into the growing ranks of “non-employees” trying to make ends meet in the so-called “gig” economy. Add to this problem the coming wave of automation and you end up with intense economic pressure on an already shrinking middle class and continued wage inequality.

Investing in our vast transportation system is the elixir our economy needs, that is, as long as any infrastructure package embraces high labor standards and worker protection policies. A $1 trillion investment in infrastructure could put up to four million people to work, according to some analyses. From construction workers and engineers to bus drivers and port employees, millions of frontline employees will be hired to build, operate, maintain, and service a new and modern transportation system. Overlay these investments with robust federal “Buy America” policies and we suddenly have a chance to not only fix our failing transportation system but also launch a new renaissance in our country’s transportation manufacturing.

The bipartisan appetite for advancing a big transportation infrastructure package presents Congress and President Trump with a unique opportunity. But appetite alone is not be enough. We need to serve up a serious plan, with real federal resources, that finally puts the lost generation of infrastructure behind us.

Edward Wytkind is president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, whose 32 member unions represents millions of transportation workers across America, both in the public and private sectors.


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