By Scott D. Pattison
In recent weeks, Americans have watched in horror and sympathy as communities across the upper Midwest were inundated by flooding, which destroyed homes, businesses and neighborhoods. A snowy winter, saturated soil and intense rains from a “bomb cyclone” combined to create true natural disaster. But the failures of dikes, dams and sluices point to a slow-motion political disaster as well.
Over the past two years, many an “Infrastructure Week” attracted attention but launched no federal legislative action. With a new Congress now engaged, the time has come for a bipartisan group of lawmakers to take up the mantle. America’s governors are here to help.
Governors know infrastructure, and they’re charging forward with state-level projects ranging from roadway construction to energy system overhauls. For example, Arizona, in the midst of a 19-year drought, joined with six Western states on water management initiatives. Pennsylvania developed an $889 million public-private partnership to replace more than 550 structurally deficient bridges, and other states are following suit. Maryland is tapping private funding and expertise for the Purple Line, a light rail project connecting the suburbs to metropolitan D.C. And on the other side of the country, Washington State secured $2.8 billion to repair Seattle’s damaged Alaska Way Viaduct. Colorado is working on express lanes to link Denver with Boulder. Indiana is targeting $100 million in grants to expand rural broadband access.
These and other state achievements are impressive, but they also underscore the extent to which states are bearing the brunt of the infrastructure burden. In fact, direct federal infrastructure spending in 2016 was less than 0.1 percent of GDP, whereas state and local spending neared 1.4 percent.
States are making the tough choices—including in some cases raising transportation fuel taxes and winning voter support for $24 billion in bond initiatives last year alone—but the tasks of modernizing and maintaining the nation’s entire transportation system, water management structures, electricity grid and advanced communications networks cannot be left to the states alone.
The challenges before the country—to ensure resiliency, security and opportunity from coast to coast—require a cooperative approach at all levels of government. And many of the most urgent needs either fall under federal jurisdiction or demand national coordination.
A workable plan must be enacted as soon as possible, not only to stave off future disaster but to safeguard prosperity. Alleviating traffic congestion and repairing roads, for instance, would save the average driver more than $2,000 a year,3 a substantial sum for working families to spend on other needs. Safe, efficient roadways, railways, waterways, airports, seaports and public transportation systems would speed the delivery of raw materials and finished products to market—not to mention tourists to their destinations and workers to their jobs—driving economic growth.
And infrastructure is more than roads and bridges. Enhanced broadband will help rebuild local economies left behind in the digital age, and environmental resiliency initiatives will mitigate the impacts of a changing climate. The recent flooding in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and other states underscored the urgent need for flood-control and water-management systems that are up to the challenges of increasingly frequent extreme weather events.
Fortunately, there are signs of progress. The president discussed his hopes for bipartisan agreement on infrastructure when addressing America’s governors at the White House in February. And similar commitment was on display during the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s initial hearing on the topic.
As we move forward, governors will encourage federal policymakers to incorporate into any infrastructure package state flexibility to leverage innovative financing tools, embrace new technologies, and access a streamlined federal review process. This will help stretch allocated funds as far as possible and efficiently direct them to real, local needs. A focus on long-term solutions will also ensure spending today is an investment in tomorrow. Whatever form the final bill may take, governors urge every member of Congress to make infrastructure a top priority this year. The United States must invest in infrastructure now, before another disaster strikes and more opportunity passes the country by. Americans cannot wait any longer.