Does Congress have courage to rebuild national infrastructure?

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Seven years after the first American orbited the earth, and thanks in no small part to the brilliant minds and the hard work of 400,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians behind the Apollo space missions, the United States landed the first humans on the moon. It was an unimaginable goal, one this country had the courage to reach, as President Kennedy famously declared, not because it was easy or hard, but because it would “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one that we are unwilling to postpone.”

When Kennedy spoke to the futuristic aspirations of the American people in the early 1960s, he spoke to an idealism forged in the steel, asphalt, and concrete that paved the Interstate Highway System, built the largest dams the world had ever known, and erected bridges spanning inconceivable distances at dizzying heights. He spoke to a nation crossed like no other by new railroads and canals, so moved by the first flight of two brothers in Kitty Hawk 60 years earlier, that they could not imagine denying their own grandchildren the same legacy. He spoke to citizens who understood that world class infrastructure drove the growth of American businesses and created good jobs that defined the middle class during the 20th century.

{mosads}We are now at a crossroads today. Federal spending on infrastructure has remained anemic for 40 years and comes nowhere close to what it was during the peak of construction on the National Highway System. It is evident as Congress has not raised the gas tax, the largest contributor of federal dollars for roads, bridges, and public transportation, since 1993. At the same time, many other infrastructure user fees have been stagnated or are robbed by lawmakers to pay for unrelated priorities.

The result of federal inaction and the misuse of funds is a sense that the days of doing big things are behind us. Our roads are crumbling. Our transit systems are struggling to drive strong demand. Our seaports are unequipped to accommodate growth in the movement of freight. Our airports are congested and flights are delayed. We look across the oceans at our greatest competitors and wonder why we cannot find the will to make the same investments they make in 21st century infrastructure.

Our two organizations do not always see eye to eye. But you can bet we will stand together when we see the toll that underinvestment takes on businesses and working families. The policy solutions here are no great mystery. We have long supported efforts for a modest increase in the federal gas tax, which is the most efficient and reliable means to raise revenues for our surface transportation network. It is true that bringing the gas tax into the 21st century will increase costs slightly for citizens.

However, failing to invest in our infrastructure costs businesses and working families substantially more. The average family loses $1,600 in income each year because of outdated infrastructure. Drivers are forced to shell out an average of $600 in vehicle repairs because of poor roads. Commuters spend an entire week of their lives each year in traffic instead of at home with their families. Businesses will lose $7 trillion in sales by 2025. We will leave good union jobs on the table because of failure to invest in our roads, ports, railroads, aviation, and public transportation.

The cost of inaction is the true regressive tax paid for by citizens. The American people have shown overwhelming bipartisan support for fixing this crisis. Nearly 80 percent of voters believe it is extremely important that Congress and the administration break the gridlock in Washington and increase investment in public infrastructure. That is exactly why they approved 77 percent of state and local infrastructure ballot measures back at home in 2018. Every commuter, every bus driver, every small business owner, and every construction worker carries the burden of federal inaction on this issue, and they are tired of it. That is a message that Congress and the administration need to hear very loud and clear.

This is why, despite our differences, we stand together in calling on the federal government to right this ship. Our leaders today must show the American people the same courage our leaders showed 60 years ago when they joined this nation together with highways, bridges, airports, and public transportation. They must show that we are a nation where businesses can thrive and workers can enjoy the middle class life that defined the American dream in the 20th century. Business leaders, labor leaders, and indeed citizens everywhere will stand united behind you.

Edward Mortimer serves as the vice president of transportation and infrastructure at the United States Chamber of Commerce. Larry Willis serves as the president of the Transportation Trades Department at the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

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