Infrastructure built our middle class and now we must build it yet again

Infrastructure built our middle class and now we must build it yet again
© Getty Images

In 1897, when public transit was practically unheard of, America’s first subway system opened, setting the stage for public transportation across the country and around the world. At the time of its construction in 1913, Grand Central Terminal was the largest construction project in New York City’s history. When it opened in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge was the tallest and longest suspension bridge on earth. It held that title until 1981.

At more than 45,000 miles in length, the Interstate Highway System remains one of America’s most spectacular infrastructure achievements, boasting the largest soft ground and underwater highway tunnels in the world. Today, it is hard to imagine our country without these iconic pieces of transportation infrastructure, or the roads and bridges, railroads, and airports Americans rely on regularly. They shaped our landscape, transformed the lives of millions, and inspired a nation.

ADVERTISEMENT
But these modern marvels are more than just a testament to American ingenuity. They are also a tribute to the strength of this country’s workforce. Tens of thousands of working people came together to build and operate these and other pieces of our nation’s transportation system and, in doing so, they built the American middle class.

Sadly, despite a rich history in innovation and a strong work ethic, our nation no longer builds infrastructure on a grand scale, and America’s middle class is suffering. In fact, the United States is on track to have the largest gap between infrastructure needs and spending in the world. One doesn’t need to look far to see the consequences of our failure to invest. Our once celebrated transit systems no longer offer a reliable way for working people to get to their jobs.

By 2020, the majority of America’s major airports are expected to experience Thanksgiving-level traffic at least once a week. Many of our ports, which aren’t deep enough to accommodate the largest ships in the world, regularly experience paralyzing congestion. Delays caused by being stuck in traffic cost this country billions in wasted time and fuel.

While countries in Asia and Europe are investing in the future by pumping billions into their transportation infrastructure, here in the United States game-changing projects like California High Speed Rail, NextGen, and Gateway are fighting to secure the funding they deserve.

Underinvestment in transportation leaves 900,000 good jobs on the table each year, further marginalizes underserved communities, and costs the average family $9 in disposable income each day. Failure to adequately address our infrastructure needs and create good, middle class jobs, combined with decades of attacks on working families, have led to chronic underemployment, stagnating wages, and one of the largest wealth gaps in American history.

Infrastructure Week reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way. America can and should be a nation that builds innovative, inspiring projects again, not because we have the tools and expertise to do so, but because our status as a world economic power and the future of working families depend on it.

When paired with strong labor protections and “Buy American” rules, investments in transportation infrastructure will allow us to create the kinds of good jobs people need to raise families, put their kids through college, and save for retirement. Building a world class transportation system will allow us to compete on the global economic stage.

Envisioning an America that once again builds higher, digs deeper, moves faster, and pushes the boundaries of what is possible is not hard to do. After all, we have the know how. Our needs are clear and massive. A skilled workforce is ready and waiting. Elected leaders are talking about infrastructure investments like never before.

The only thing holding us back is the political will of lawmakers to reach across party lines and fund infrastructure in a way that will rebuild this nation, inspire a generation, and breathe new life into the middle class.

Larry Willis is president of the Transportation Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.