To stave off a recession, let's pass a transportation infrastructure bill
© Greg Nash

An intensifying trade war with China. A gyrating stock market. A media frenzy over the dreaded “R” word—recession. And tweet storms from politicians on both sides of the aisle. It certainly wasn’t the typically tranquil month during the August congressional recess.

This was the landscape facing members of the House and Senate as they returned to D.C. last week and prepared for a busy month ahead on multiple policy fronts.

The American economy is currently at a crossroads. At 3.7 percent, the unemployment rate remains at a 50-year low. On Sept. 6, however, the U.S. Labor Department reported job growth came in below forecasts, continuing its downward trajectory.

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Manufacturing has slumped as global demand retreats and currency shifts. Earlier this year, Caterpillar CEO James Umpleby presciently noted: “Anytime there’s trade tensions of this kind, it does put a certain amount of conservatism, I think, into all of our plans for capital spending.” 

A big warning sign arrived in late July when the Federal Reserve reported that U.S. manufacturing was in a “technical recession” in the first half of 2019. And most member economists surveyed in August by the National Association for Business Economics expect a recession by the end of 2021 at the latest.

Of course, pundits and pessimists will argue that President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE and Congress are powerless to guard against a downturn. They are wrong.

If elected leaders want to take a forward-looking action now to mitigate against a possible recession in the next year to 18 months, there is one glaring policy solution staring them right in the face: passage of a robustly-funded federal highway, bridge and transit investment package.

Such a bill is an economic elixir that would help the largest U.S. companies hurt by the trade war—not just construction companies, but material suppliers, equipment manufacturers and other industries that provide inputs for transportation projects.

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Every $1 invested in transportation construction and maintenance generates between $2.00 and $2.20 in economic activity across all sectors of the economy. Such investments help create jobs, ease traffic congestion, reduce business transportation costs, and keep us globally competitive.

One of the most attractive benefits of public investments in transportation infrastructure is that they create tangible capital assets that are long-lived. In addition to creating tens of thousands of good paying U.S. jobs and generating tax revenues during the construction cycle, such improvements also foster and facilitate continued economic growth over many years beyond the initial investment. For example, transportation construction already supports 48,000 manufacturing jobs each year and generates up to $17.5 billion a year in added tax revenue.

There was encouraging news in late July when the Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) committee unanimously approved bipartisan reauthorization legislation that for the first time in nearly 15 years would significantly increase investment in traditional core highway accounts and create several new initiatives and pilot programs. This was no small feat in the current political environment.

The five-year, $287 billion “America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act” (ATIA) would yield a $37.9 billion increase above the existing levels of highway investment, plus inflation. In FY 2021, ATIA would increase highway investment by 17 percent, with modest increases in subsequent years.

The Senate Finance, Commerce and Banking Committees still must address their respective jurisdictions of the bill, and they should do so as soon as possible. We urge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse passes standalone bill to provide B for Israel's Iron Dome Pelosi vows to avert government shutdown McConnell calls Trump a 'fading brand' in Woodward-Costa book MORE (R-Ky.) to work with EPW Chairman John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs EPA finalizes rule cutting use of potent greenhouse gas used in refrigeration House Democrat: Staff is all vaccinated 'because they don't like to be dead' MORE (R-Wyo.) and EPW Ranking Member Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs EPA finalizes rule cutting use of potent greenhouse gas used in refrigeration The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - US speeds evacuations as thousands of Americans remain in Afghanistan MORE (D-Del.) to schedule floor time for final passage later this fall.

House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioOregon legislature on the brink as Democrats push gerrymandered maps The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sticks to his Afghanistan deadline Biden commends Pelosi for 'masterful' leadership MORE (D-Ore.) and his colleagues are working on development of their own a comprehensive infrastructure package. 

President Trump and House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Democrats steamroll toward showdown on House floor Panic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda MORE (D-Calif.) should also come back to the table and continue their May discussions on a grand infrastructure bargain that ended amidst partisan rancor. Prospects for completing such a deal can often change in the face of economic headwinds.

President Trump and Congress have a unique opportunity to deliver on a promise they’ve been making since the 2016 election—passage of an infrastructure investment bill the American people strongly support and the economy sorely needs.

Dave Bauer is president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Road & Transportation Builders Association. Dennis Slater is the president of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.