The people have spoken: Infrastructure means roads and bridges
If there was any doubt about the value of infrastructure, and the risks of neglecting it, Hurricane Ida wiped it out. The catastrophic failure of the New Orleans power grid, excessively dependent on a single, vulnerable transmission tower, and the contrasting success of the levee system that was rebuilt in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, demonstrate why it’s essential to invest in hard infrastructure (roads, bridges, tunnels, power generation and distribution and water systems) and the devastating consequences of underinvestment.
The House of Representatives should take that lesson to heart and pass the Senate’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill — without tying it to the Democrats-only $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.
Some progressive members had vowed to defeat the bill — the largest since the 1950s that focuses solely on infrastructure investment — unless it is linked to the Democrats-only $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. Procedural measures may bring the Senate package to a separate vote. That must happen. We need the infrastructure plan to stand on its own — and according to a new survey, it is what the American people want.
There is no minimizing the scope of the Senate’s achievement. The Senate bill, if passed, will improve American productivity, create millions of new jobs, revive many U.S. infrastructure-related industries and, most importantly, give us the infrastructure we need to allow us to compete internationally.
While the size and features of the bill are far from perfect — it should be much larger and should involve the private sector instead of just old-fashioned government top-down spending mechanisms — it promises to be the start of a new era.
And that is why threats by progressive House Democrats to defeat the bill are a step in the wrong direction. Thankfully the current plan is to ensure that the House separates the bills and votes unconditionally on the bipartisan bill first, as ten moderate Democrats have demanded.
The reconciliation bill — which by Senate rules is filibuster-proof and could be passed with only Democratic votes — will contain many, if not all, of the other infrastructure investment proposals from President Biden’s American Jobs Plan that were excluded from the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Likely to be among them: Infrastructure provisions related to climate change, as well as spending for “human infrastructure,” including eldercare, childcare and education.
At the heart of the difference between the two bills is a debate about the definition of infrastructure. It is not just academic — it has significant policy ramifications.
It also marks a dividing line between progressive priorities and what the American people actually want.
With the infrastructure debate underway, I recently conducted a survey of 1,000 individuals to examine Americans’ attitudes and opinions about key infrastructure issues. It shows that Americans are focused on “core infrastructure,” its economic impact and its impact on their daily lives — and don’t prioritize the broader set of progressive priorities as infrastructure.
According to the results, Americans are unhappy with their infrastructure and think it creates either inconveniences or actual risk:
- Fewer than one in five (16 percent) are definitely satisfied with their infrastructure
- Nearly 60 percent think the current state of U.S. infrastructure presents safety or health risks to them or their loved ones
- The majority of respondents across generations and income levels agree that poor or deteriorating infrastructure makes it difficult for them to get around for work, school or leisure, makes electric power unreliable, or is actually a threat to their well-being.
While the majority of Americans are unhappy with the state of the infrastructure, they also feel strongly (67 percent) that there is a direct correlation between their community infrastructure and their quality of life. This holds true across income levels and across generations. It is equally true for rural and urban populations and Democrats and Republicans (with a higher percentage for Democrats – 78 percent vs. 66 percent).
So it is not surprising that there were cheers from both sides of the aisle when the Senate infrastructure bill was proposed and then approved for debate. But consensus fell apart when we asked for definitions of infrastructure — in a way that suggests that any link between the bipartisan bill and the reconciliation bill would be a mistake:
- Across all groups, there was recognition that roads, bridges and tunnels are infrastructure (66 percent);
- Other elements of “core infrastructure” were not far behind — power grids (56 percent) and water supply (51 percent);
- But with soft infrastructure, it was a different story. Only 13 percent believe elder care is infrastructure and just 15 percent believe childcare and education are infrastructure;
- Overall, if we merge the subcategories into core infrastructure and non-core, 80 percent of respondents feel that the core category is synonymous with infrastructure versus 40 percent for non-core. This held true across income levels and party affiliation. Democrats and Republicans fundamentally agree that roads, power grids and water supply are infrastructure while elder care is not. There were differences, but they are not decisive (18 percent of Democrats think eldercare is infrastructure versus 8 percent for Republicans).
- There was also consensus across generational lines. These sentiments translate directly into policy priorities. When asked, “What aspects of your community’s infrastructure do you feel needs the most improvement?” the overwhelming priority indicates core infrastructure (87 percent), against non-core (39 percent).
In other words, the bipartisan infrastructure bill reflects a national bipartisan consensus. The American people know what they want from an infrastructure program. And their choice is sensible — the deterioration of core infrastructure has the most immediate impact on their daily lives and its modernization is likely to lead to significant economic and productivity growth.
We should certainly focus on climate, healthcare, eldercare or education — those are critically important issues. But they should not put the core infrastructure program at risk to achieve those goals. The infrastructure bill currently before the Senate is not perfect — but it represents a great win for the Biden administration, the bipartisan coalition and the American people.
While the Senate bill is far from perfect, Congress should focus on what matters most to Americans and pass it without precondition, and without any link to the reconciliation package.
Sadek Wahba is a senior fellow at the Development Research Institute of New York University. He is also chairman and managing partner of I Squared Capital, an independent global infrastructure investment company. The views expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations mentioned above.
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