Planning for the future with infrastructure

All the partisan bickering and finger-pointing over sequestration has managed to divert our attention from other equally serious issues facing the country today, including the sorry state of our deteriorating infrastructure. 

The situation is critical because our economic prosperity rests on our infrastructure — not just roads, but high-speed rail, airports, our electric grid and broadband network, ports and water systems. American infrastructure is becoming unnecessarily costly, unreliable and inefficient simply because of our failure to invest in our future and adopt technology that would address our problems. 

Every day we come across examples of these failures. Power outages are common because our electric grids are incredibly vulnerable to severe weather. America invented the Internet, but today our broadband, once the envy of the world, is outdated, slow and inefficient because we have failed to keep pace with the technological development of Europe and Asia. Overcrowded highways, bridges in need of repair or replacement and aging transportation systems all remain in place at the cost of economic growth and development. 

Obviously we have a problem and it needs addressing. We have skimped on maintenance and modernization for decades, and now we are paying the price for our neglect. We need a plan that tackles our infrastructure’s critical needs, but it needs to be well-thought out, collaborative and modern — a plan that envisions the United States 10, 15 and 25 years from now.

Numerous commissions have done studies on what is needed in various sectors of our critical infrastructure, but no one has tied it all together with a comprehensive blueprint for the entire country that marries them all together. We need our brightest minds to look forward and design the systems necessary to support and assist our future needs. 

We also need to change the way we approach funding and apportion money to our infrastructure. We need to coordinate local, state and federal resources and direct investment where it is most needed and will bring the greatest return. Because there are not enough public funds available to do all that is needed, we need to bring the private sector in as a full partner in our endeavors. 

A National Infrastructure Bank could prevent projects from getting derailed by politics with stringent vetting and strict performance measures. If we can give private funds the certainty they need to invest in substantial and long-term projects, then economic — not political — considerations could determine what we spend and where. 

Our infrastructure — and the good policymaking that built it — is a key reason America became an economic superpower. Our economic growth and prosperity depend on our ability to export our goods and services, but because of our neglect, we are losing our competitive superiority in the global marketplace. Our infrastructure has begun to deteriorate as other nations have raced beyond us, recognizing the need for and committing resources to the growth and development of their infrastructure. 

We cannot compete in the 21st century global marketplace with an aging, deteriorating 20th century infrastructure. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Competitiveness report, the United States is ranked 14th in the overall quality of infrastructure, 20th in the quality of roads, 18th in the quality of railroads, 19th in the quality of port facilities, 33rd in the quality of electrical supply and 30th in the quality of air transport.

Our choice is simple and straightforward: Keep paying in hidden losses or invest in our future as we have in the past. Successful businesses like Apple, General Electric and Caterpillar, to name three U.S. companies, invest their money based on expected returns. Successful countries, with growing, thriving, healthy economies also invest in the research and development of new technologies, but the smarter money always invests according to a plan. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t do the same, and act in a planned, deliberate, and strategic fashion.

This is an ambitious undertaking, but one worthy of our past and essential for our future. Lest anyone think that the cost of what is necessary is too great, consider that the price we will pay in lost income and opportunity will be even greater. We cannot afford to continue neglecting the foundation of our economy and our prosperity — the stakes are too high. 

Hale is president of Building 
America’s Future.