Opinion | Finance

Our crumbling infrastructure is failing small businesses

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Daniel Speer had a simple task: Visit three clients of his home remodeling company in and around Washington, D.C.

While conversations with each client averaged only 15-30 minutes, the total time invested in those three conversations totaled more than six hours, due to traffic, poor road conditions and aging infrastructure - challenge that affect Speer's business operations every day.

Multiply that inefficiency by the 50 trucks in Speer's fleet, and it's easy to see why he says that the state of infrastructure today "makes it difficult to do business."

Speer's frustrations are a microcosm of challenges felt by small businesses across the United States, according to results of the most recent MetLife & U.S. Chamber of Commerce Small Business Index.

The survey was conducted among 1,001 small business owners in all 50 states. For the first time, the survey asked small-business owners about their views on American infrastructure, including highways, roads, railroads, ports, communications, and Internet infrastructure.

The input was not good.

  • About half of small businesses worry that U.S. infrastructure is falling behind competing nations, at a time when they consider such infrastructure as strategically critical to their business operations.
  • Small-business owners consider improvements to local transportation systems (local roads, highways, bridges and mass transit) as more important for success than national transportation systems like airports, railroads and ports, and harbors.

When America developed its transportation infrastructure in the 1900s, it was the envy of the world. Now, much of it has reached the end of its lifespan - and without action from the federal government, we will continue to Band-Aid an antiquated system. All this while other countries, including China, India and Spain, are adding modern, 21st century infrastructure. 

This infrastructure will incorporate new, emerging technologies such as 5G, sensors, autonomous vehicles, and drones. These technologies will help link delivery systems, ports, rails, highways, and public transportation in new, unique ways. In turn, this cutting-edge infrastructure will attract highly-skilled millennial workers into valuable and rewarding jobs worldwide.

So, what should be a priority?

In the index, small-business owners had a few ideas on where policymakers could focus, prioritizing local roads as needing the most improvement (69 percent), followed by highways (44 percent), bridges (30 percent), and mass transit (25 percent). And across the board, small business owners also see improving high-speed Internet as a clear priority.

Many others have confirmed what Speer and small businesses nationwide know about the state of American infrastructure. In its "2017 Infrastructure Report Card," the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's infrastructure a D+, with the transit sector earning a miserable D-. ASCE estimates that failing to close the infrastructure gap will cost the U.S. economy $7 trillion by 2025.

If we do nothing, we'll lose trillions of dollars without ever breaking ground. But those dollars, those missed opportunities and those lost jobs never make it into a government end-of-year report, or a business balance sheet, or a Small Business Index. They are truly lost: things that could have been if our infrastructure had only been up to snuff.

It doesn't have to be this way. There are solutions. And though some of these solutions must come from the private sector or state governments, the federal government should help.

The U.S. Chamber believes one way the federal government can help is by enacting an infrastructure modernization plan. Just like Dwight Eisenhower developed the interstate highway system, we need to develop a vision for a 21st century infrastructure - one that enables all American businesses to compete and win in an increasingly high-tech, globalized economy. Every year we delay making these investments, small businesses will suffer due to lost productivity, and the eventual cost to modernize will only grow.

To solve this problem, the U.S. Chamber has put forward four key recommendations for rebuilding America's infrastructure:

  • modestly increase the federal motor vehicle fuel user fee;
  • facilitate greater public and private investment;
  • streamline America's permitting process; and
  • take steps to address the skilled-worker shortage.

This is not a partisan issue. These are common-sense solutions we can work on together to rebuild the nation's infrastructure. It's also a great opportunity to show those outside Washington we can still work together to solve one of the nation's most pressing problems.

The status quo simply won't work. American's small businesses have enough to do, and they're looking to us for a solution. It's up to us to take the next step and make a 21st century infrastructure a reality.

Let's get to work.

Ed Mortimer is vice president of transportation and infrastructure policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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