Lip service won’t fix crumbling infrastructure

Although the recent deal to end the shutdown and restore our borrowing authority bought a few months to solve the latest fiscal crisis, it reflects a larger problem in Congress. There is an unwillingness among some to put politics aside, so we can have an honest conversation about the resources required to meet the country’s significant challenges ahead. And fixing the nation’s crumbling transportation system is one of our biggest challenges.

The U.S. was once a global leader in building and maintaining our infrastructure. That’s no longer the case. After decades of underinvestment in our roads, airports and air traffic control systems, rails and ports, we have fallen far behind — and it’s staring us in the face. Because we have not done our jobs when it comes to investing in the future, the U.S. no longer ranks among the World Economic Forum’s top 10 countries in terms of infrastructure quality and investment.

For many years now, some in Congress have given great lip service to infrastructure investments but then recoil at any discussion of actually providing the necessary funding to meet our needs. Simply put, anyone who claims to be for infrastructure and then refuses to fund it is a hypocrite. This way of doing business is bringing our country down. I want to be clear that anyone who says he or she is for infrastructure has to be able to back it up with real revenue. The hypocrisy has to end now before we hit rock bottom. 

So where does this leave us? Stuck in an ad hoc, short-term approach of funding the nation’s infrastructure. Spending the bare minimum in order to keep our transportation network functioning. Drowning in our own failure because we are incapable of making tough decisions.

Our manufacturing industry, for one, is sounding the alarm over the strain we’ve placed on our infrastructure. The National Association of Manufacturers recently reported that 70 percent of manufacturers believe our nation’s infrastructure needs serious improvement. Sixty-five percent believe current spending is not sufficient to respond to competitive demand. I couldn’t agree more. The country’s repeated failure to modernize is catching up to us and threatening our economic growth.

The U.S. can again be a world leader in infrastructure investment. The upcoming budget discussions give us the opportunity to address our problems head-on, but everything must be on the table. It will require Congress to put aside its divisions and work together to find a long-term solution. It will require more money and resources. It will require a commitment to ending our reliance on unrelated discretionary funding to bail out federal financing programs. 

A variety of options have been proposed to address the unsustainable status quo of funding public works projects. We could increase existing user fees to bring revenue in line with our demands; we could generate revenue at the oil barrel; we could move toward a system based on miles traveled; or we could look for a more innovative option.

I put forth a proposal to complement existing funding and grow overall investment. The plan would create an infrastructure fund that leverages public funding with private-sector investment directed toward building and strengthening our infrastructure. Others have put forth similar proposals, and I believe this concept is a viable way to bring the billions of dollars in private capital off the sidelines and put those funds to work. No solution is perfect, but we have to come together and find a practical and sustainable path forward.

Beyond financing, we must rethink how our federal transportation programs function. Existing funding programs that are siloed from each other  aren’t equipped to make strategic investments across modes on projects that can make a difference to our country’s long-term growth.

We need to invest in projects that eliminate crippling bottlenecks in freight corridors to create a safer, more efficient flow of commerce. We need to promote transformational projects that put next-generation safety technologies into our air, rail and road networks. However, to do all this, we need a strategic, long-term vision for rebuilding our transportation network.

The federal government has a critical role to play in developing and maintaining our transportation infrastructure. This was obvious in the past weeks, when we lost important transportation safety oversight and investigative capabilities during the government shutdown.

We need to move beyond the obstruction and ideologies that are paralyzing our ability to govern and come together now. Congress, the administration and the stakeholder community all must engage in an honest conversation about how to best increase investments in our nation’s future. The decisions we make now — or those we don’t make — will have a lasting impact. 

Rockefeller is the senior senator from West Virginia, serving since 1985. He is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He also sits on the Finance and the Veterans Affairs committees, as well as the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Joint Committee on Taxation.