Let’s rebuild America

Our infrastructure is collapsing, and the American people know it. Every day, they drive on roads with unforgiving potholes, over bridges that are in disrepair and wait in traffic jams on congested roads. They see railroads and subways that arrive late and that are overcrowded. They see airports bursting at the seams. They worry that a local levee could fail in a storm. 

For many years we have underfunded the maintenance of our nation’s physical infrastructure. That has to change. It is time to rebuild America. A $1 trillion investment to modernize our country’s physical infrastructure would not just rebuild our country but create and maintain 13 million good-paying jobs that our economy desperately needs.

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For most of our history, we proudly led the world in building innovative infrastructure, from a network of canals, to the transcontinental railroad, to the interstate highway system. We launched an ambitious rural electrification program, massive flood control projects, and more.

These innovations grew our economy, giving our businesses a competitive advantage, providing our workers a decent standard of living, becoming the envy of the world. Sadly, that is no longer the case. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2015 now ranks our overall infrastructure at 12th in the world, down considerably from just eight years earlier.

How bad is the situation? Almost one-third of our roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and more than 40 percent of urban highways are congested. One of nine bridges is structurally deficient, and nearly a quarter are functionally obsolete. Transit systems face major unfunded repairs, while 45 percent of American households lack access to any transit at all.

Our nation’s rail network is largely antiquated, even though our energy-efficient railroads move more freight than ever and Amtrak’s ridership has never been higher. Our crowded airports still rely on 1960s radar technology because we haven’t spent the money to implement a satellite-based air traffic control system to improve safety and efficiency.

The list goes on and on. More than 4,000 of our dams are ‘deficient’ and nearly 9 percent of our levees are likely to fail during a major flood. Many drinking water systems are nearing the end of their useful lives, and wastewater treatment plants often fail during heavy rains. Our world ranking, 16th, in terms of broadband Internet access, carries serious implications for commerce, education, telemedicine and public safety. We even underfund the National Parks that preserve our nation’s heritage and natural wonders for future generations.

We now spend just 2.4 percent of GDP on infrastructure, less than at any point in the last 20 years. Europe spends twice that amount, and China spends close to four times our rate. We are falling further and further behind, and the longer we wait, the more it will cost us later. Deteriorating infrastructure does not magically get better by ignoring it.

To get our infrastructure to a state of good repair by 2020, the American Society of Civil Engineers says we must invest $1.6 trillion more than what we now spend. If that sounds a like a lot of money, consider for a moment that the sad state of our infrastructure already costs the economy close to $200 billion per year. 

There is no question that the economy has improved significantly since the worst days of the recession. However, the U.S. Department of Labor says the real unemployment rate — which counts those who have settled for part-time work but who would like to work full time, and those who have given up looking for jobs entirely — was a completely unacceptable 11.2 percent last month. Youth unemployment is almost 18 percent. African-American youth unemployment is 28 percent. 

Simply put, we need to create more good-paying jobs. A $1 trillion investment would put 13 million people to work repairing the backlog of infrastructure projects all across this country. Moreover, each project would require equipment, supplies and services, and the hard-earned salaries from the jobs created would be spent in countless restaurants, shops and other local businesses. And, all of this economic activity would generate new tax revenues to pay for the services that the American people expect and deserve.

It is no wonder that groups from across the political spectrum — from organized labor to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — agree that investing in infrastructure makes sound economic sense. 

The good news is that it is not too late to get back on track. Let’s rebuild America, create millions of jobs, improve our communities and make our economy stronger. 

Sanders is Vermont’s junior senator, serving since 2007. He sits on the Budget; the Energy and Natural Resources; the Environment and Public Works; the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; and the Veterans’ Affairs committees.