Our nation has a huge deficit of infrastructure investment, and it shows. With crumbling roads and collapsing bridges, the American Society of Engineers gave the United States a D+ on its "2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure." There will be an estimated investment need of $3.6 trillion by 2020 which, right now, is a tab that will be left for future generations to pick up.
Upon further review, that gap fails to even include other critical infrastructure systems like water, power, heating and cooling, and broadband. These often overlooked infrastructure systems add additional weight to our nation's backlog.
A co-author of this piece, former Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), has long held that President Obama's 2009 stimulus package of $800 billion dollars would have had dozens of Republican votes, perhaps closer to 100, if it were a true infrastructure bill. Imagine the difference it would have made in our airports; seaports; road and bridge systems; and water, electrical and broadband infrastructure. It could have required matching grants from states, municipalities and public utilities, thereby leveraging another trillion dollars or more. And we would have something to show for all that borrowing.
China has completely rebuilt itself, making it immediately America's No. 1 competitor for the 21st century. China has modern rail and air services that make ours look like the Third World.
Just look at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and Newark, N.J.'s Pennsylvania Station. We are clearly falling behind.
Walsh's hometown, Syracuse, N.Y., has 550 miles of water pipes flowing through the city — most of which are over 100 years old, requiring maintenance costs of over $2 million annually. We need to replace this system with a state of the art, 21st-century water system. It would include "smart" components such as sensors on water lines to make it more resilient and efficient. As a whole, these improvements will reduce maintenance costs, save water and put money back in the pockets of Syracuse citizens.
However it should not stop there — while the city is digging up and replacing the pipes, why not take the opportunity to improve other city services? A proposal Walsh floated while in Congress would use a plentiful, natural resource — lake water. While construction was ongoing, the city would take the opportunity to implement a naturally chilled water project that would utilize water from Skaneateles or Ontario Lakes to cool buildings throughout the city, saving millions of more dollars for citizens. We could go even further by laying broadband cable and investing in upgrades to the city's roads and bridges. If the city is going to invest in upgrades to the water system, clearly much more needs to be dug up — so why dig twice?
By the way, this is also the best way to do economic development. Local construction jobs are created to kick-start economic growth. A buzz is created around the effort to build the city anew. In the end, it is much easier to create new business opportunities and attract job-creating industry with good roads, plentiful water and broadband.
The White House recently announced an initiative designed to "to bring private sector capital and expertise to bear on improving our nation's roads, bridges, and broadband networks." Members of Congress are putting together a surface transportation reauthorization package. Reps. John Delaney (D-Md.) and Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) have introduced a bill that would "finance the rebuilding of our country's transportation, energy, communications, water and education infrastructure" — this bill last year garnered bipartisan support from 70 co-sponsors and would use repatriated money (money earned oversees by American companies and held there) as a down payment on our nation's infrastructure deficit.
Additionally, we are seeing innovation at the ground level. Governors, mayors, county executives and regional collaborations are emerging to help put projects together through nontraditional models. The West Coast Infrastructure Exchange (WCX) is one such success story — borrowing from successful infrastructure financing models in Canada and Australia. In British Columbia alone, this model has financed over $18 billion in public assets, public buildings, health and energy facilities in just the last 10 years. The WCX is applying this model to make it easier for private investors to work with government to finance infrastructure projects. More regional exchange models are in early development in the Mountain West, the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic regions.
The bottom line is: If we are serious about solving our nation's infrastructure problems, we cannot afford to piecemeal a solution. Our plans and our actions need to be innovative, bold, intentional, and coordinated. Governments at each level need to act now. By tapping public and private resources we can sustain America’s role as the world leader.
Walsh is a former U.S. representative from New York, serving from 1989 to 2009. He is currently a government affairs counselor for K&L Gates LLP in Washington. Greif is a government affairs analyst at K&L Gates. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of K&L Gates, its partners or employees.