Infrastructure investment is a national security issue

The benefits of infrastructure investment are well known. Every $1 billion so invested creates 35,000 jobs and generates $6.1 billion in economic activity. Our roads, bridges and other infrastructure are valuable economic assets that are essential for moving goods and maintaining the efficiency of our economy while helping reduce emissions. Despite the benefits, and the general agreement among business, labor, agriculture and other stakeholders that infrastructure investment is good for the country, we are not investing enough in infrastructure. Even the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis two years ago has not jolted us to collective action. 

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the aforementioned groups have been demanding action on this issue.

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act included $48.1 billion for infrastructure investment, far less than what our committee proposed and just a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to shore up our highways, railroads, bridges, airports and waterways. Yet, the stimulus funding seems to have diminished the willingness of Congress to act further this year. Due to the inability to move a six-year highway bill and an FAA reauthorization bill through the Senate, both were just extended for short periods, further delaying these critical investments. 

The FAA bill is a microcosm of the greater legislative problem, as it has now been waiting for three years, the House having passed it in the 110th Congress and having passed H.R. 915 this spring. Even with the economic downturn and a brutally tough environment for airlines, traffic growth is projected to rise in the years ahead. H.R. 915 would provide historic funding levels for the capital programs of the FAA, which will ensure that the resources are in place to begin the transition to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) while providing necessary funding for airport improvements, such as new runways.

NextGen is particularly critical, as it will take us from a radar-based air traffic system to a satellite-based system. This technology will allow us to make more efficient use of our airspace as planes are able to fly closer together and pilots and controllers have access to real-time information, reducing congestion and delays and saving fuel. 

Beyond the savings for our economy and reducing time spent in traffic or delayed at the airport, safety is the most important reason we must continue to invest in our nation’s infrastructure.  This point cannot be overstated. We should never forget that 13 people died and 140 were injured in the Minneapolis bridge collapse. In Illinois, there are 4,393 bridges that are structurally deficient (cannot hold the weight they were originally designed for) and/or functionally obsolete (do not meet current design standards) — over 16 percent of the bridges in the state. Recovery Act dollars have helped address the need for repairs, but there is much work left to do. 

The depleted state of our infrastructure makes us susceptible to catastrophic events, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority coal sludge accident or the possibility of levee failure throughout the United States. Hurricane Katrina got the public’s attention regarding the devastation a levee breach can cause. What many people do not know is that our levee systems around the country are in disrepair and are susceptible to major flood events. The 2009 ASCE report card included levees for the first time and graded them a D-minus, estimating that it will take $100 billion to repair and rehabilitate our levees.

Levees also demonstrate that infrastructure investment is not just a responsibility of the federal government, but must remain a focus of state and local governments as well. According to the ASCE, 85 percent of the nation’s 100,000 miles of levees are locally owned and maintained. 

The overriding point here is that we have a national infrastructure problem that is growing and we cannot take the position that because we included infrastructure money in the stimulus, we have checked that box for 2009. We need to pass the FAA reauthorization bill and a six-year highway bill this year. Yes, there are difficult issues involved, particularly with funding for the latter, but I am convinced any policy differences can be worked out quickly with bipartisan attention. As far as funding is concerned, Congress has spent close to $1 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A significant part of that has been spent on building infrastructure in those countries as part of our overall national security effort. 

I believe improving America’s infrastructure is national security, critical to securing our economic future with good-paying jobs and preserving our way of life, and until we give it this priority we will remain a country at risk. If it is a priority overseas, it has to be a priority here at home. The time is now to move forward to rebuild America. Let us not wait any longer. 

Costello serves on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and chairs the Aviation Subcommittee.