President-elect Donald J. Trump has rightfully brought infrastructure modernization to the top of our national to-do list. While many Americans focus on the economic benefits of enhancing our infrastructure, there is another important advantage: our enhanced national security.
Mr. Trump’s timing could not be better. America’s infrastructure, the physical foundation of our society, must be properly maintained and continuously modernized.
Visible transportation-related infrastructure includes highways, bridges, airports, seaports, and rail systems. But equally important - though less-visible - “enabler infrastructure” includes petroleum and natural gas pipeline distribution systems, power generation and distribution networks, water systems and our air traffic control grid, among many others.
Much like the visible ones, these enablers require the immediate attention of policymakers.
Unfortunately, the modernization of many segments of our infrastructure has been a low priority over the years. As a result, some of it has reached the end of its useful life and is serving on borrowed time. As that time runs out, these systems are failing and lives are in danger.
Looking specifically at transportation infrastructure, we depend on it to quickly mobilize assets and respond within our borders to address natural and manmade disasters in peacetime. We also need it in order to move our armed forces and material from garrisons around the country to air and sea ports of embarkation in times of conflict.
Any plan to rectify the situation must be holistic.
For example, rebuilding and modernizing airports will be of limited value without also addressing our aging and increasingly overwhelmed air traffic control system. We have the safest airspace in the world, but it is not the most efficient.
Unnecessary travel delays in the United States cost customers and our economy $30 billion annually. These delays are the direct result of system-wide inefficiencies resulting from the use of outdated, WWII-era radar technology.
Policymakers should consider reform that establishes a federally chartered, non-profit organization to modernize the system funded by user-fees.
Another example is maritime security. Our country is a maritime nation: over 90 percent of all goods consumed enter our nation through sea ports.
Surprisingly, 98 percent of that cargo is carried in ships flying foreign flags – only 2 percent arrives in the 78 remaining ships still trading internationally under the U.S. flag.
The same shrinking pool of highly skilled mariners who operate the privately-owned commercial ships also form the pool of talent from which the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command fleet of 112 ships and the Maritime Administration’s 46 Ready Reserve Force ships draw upon.
Without these government-owned ships, and the 78 commercially-operated ships, our nation’s armed forces are denied their principal means of movement and sustainability away from our shores.
Some members of Congress are already on to the national security implications of a shrinking fleet. Recently, Rep. John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiAt 75, the Fulbright deserves respect and more funding The situation in Ethiopia is horrific, its continuation doesn't have to be inexorable Why is Biden doubling down on Trump's nuclear expansion? MORE (D-CA), ranking member of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, introduced H.R. 6455, the “Energizing American Maritime Act,” designed to strengthen the U.S. domestic maritime industry.
It would require up to 30 percent of exports of liquefied natural gas and crude oil, what he called "strategic energy assets," be moved in U.S.-flagged vessels. Similar, complementary efforts to grow other areas of our merchant marine fleet and the ports that serve them must be pursued as a national security imperative.
Finally, an efficient infrastructure consumes less energy. Efficient highway design would support new technologies like driverless vehicles, eliminate traffic bottlenecks and increase road capacity saving billions of gallons of fuel every year.
Upgraded inland waterways could also reduce highway volume and permit lower per ton/mile movement of more goods. A more efficient air traffic control system would similarly result in energy savings.
In the coming months as President-elect Trump and the Congress roll up their sleeves and hammer out plans to address this infrastructure imperative, they would do well to remember that such a task will have many competing priorities for where to best spend the budget; every district will certainly have its favorite project.
The trick will be to put those funds to work where they have the greatest benefit to our national security and the safety of our citizens. A tall task indeed.
Rear Admiral Buzby is the president and CEO of the National Defense Transportation Association. He served 34 years in the U.S. Navy, most recently as Commander of the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command.
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