Wanted: Someone to make the case for infrastructure investment

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Our roads and streets are like the weather – something we all have in common, something we can complain about and something we seem unable to fix.


And think about it –just when you thought a sufficient number of band-aids were applied to our highways and byways after the beating they took in the last brutal winter, we’re just a few months away from a winter the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts will be as unsparing as the last one.


If there’s any comfort to be had, we have lots and lots of company. The quality of the roads in Pennsylvania is nothing that should be trumpeted from the commonwealth’s mountaintops, but most other states aren’t doing much better. A report released last month by the National Economic Council and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers painted a grim picture of how our infrastructure is faring. It’s sobering reading, especially when you consider that, not all that long ago, the United States was the world’s undisputed leader in the quality of its concrete-and-asphalt connective tissue.


The study found 65 percent of the country’s major roads were rated in less-than-good condition. One in four bridges require significant repair. Those bridges, and many of the roads that lead to them, were designed 50 or 60 years ago, and now carry traffic loads far beyond the anticipated volume when they were originally built. Public transportation is woefully inadequate, particularly in comparison to what one finds in Europe and other parts of the world. In less than a decade, according to the World Economic Forum, we have tumbled from seventh place to 18th worldwide in the quality of our roads.


Who is now ahead of the pack? Asia, thanks largely to the fevered pace of development in both China and India. To fully comprehend how shabby our roads appear to outsiders, David Dollar of the Brookings Institution recently told the Los Angeles Times when Chinese officials disembark on these shores they “frequently remark how surprised they are at America’s declining infrastructure, sometimes asking whether they can help finance improvements.”


Unlike the weather, we can fix our streets and roads. But it’s something that will have to come out of our pockets. Before Congress left Washington, D.C., earlier this month for its lengthy recess, it approved an $11 billion stopgap measure to keep the Highway Trust Fund afloat through the spring. The fund is used to reimburse states for repairs and improvements they make to infrastructure, and if it were left on the table, an appreciable amount of summertime road work would have ground to a halt. Eleventh-hour hijinks like this have become par for the course with this Congress, but a longer-term commitment is necessary.


The White House proposed what it calls the Grow America Act, which would infuse $302 billion into the nation’s infrastructure. Barring an entirely unlikely change in the dynamics on Capitol Hill, it has absolutely no chance of getting anywhere.


But at some point, America will inevitably have to pay up. We should regret the stimulus package following the 2008 economic downturn was not larger and more infrastructure work was not included in it. During that dark, uncertain passage, interest rates were at rock bottom, workers were idled, and eager contractors would have stumbled over one another to submit low bids. Now, with the economy healing, interest rates will probably start a northward trajectory, workers are punching in elsewhere and the price is bound to be higher.


Investing more in our infrastructure would help create jobs, boost the economy, both in the short and long-terms, and save us all from having to fork up for pricey repairs for our vehicles at the auto shop. What is most needed are elected officials with the courage to make the case for its costs and benefits.


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