WASHINGTON — In the 20th century, the United States built the most advanced infrastructure system ever — made up of highways, bridges, air and sea ports, rail and mass transit systems, dams and levees, and a modern electricity grid. Those investments put millions to work and fueled our economic growth, expanded our horizons, and made us the envy of the world.
But in the years since, we’ve failed to keep up those investments, and we’ve moved from first in the world to middle of the pack.
It’s time to restore our infrastructure through smart investments. By taking five sensible steps, Congress and the administration can help strengthen the economy, create jobs, enhance U.S. productivity and competitiveness, reduce congestion, improve the environment and save lives.
First, we must pass core transportation bills. After years of needless delays, Congress recently approved a multi-year FAA reauthorization bill that will modernize our air traffic control system and improve our airports.
Lawmakers now need to pass legislation to maintain investment in our roads, bridges, transit and water systems. And we can no longer afford short-term extensions. Without the certainty of multi-year funding, projects will continue to be delayed, allowing infrastructure to fall further into disrepair and pushing land, labor and materials costs higher.
Second, Congress must ensure that money invested in infrastructure is spent wisely. It must align federal policy, programs and resources with national needs. Over the years, these programs have devolved into a political redistribution of federal dollars, instead of thoughtful investments benefiting the nation as a whole.
Lawmakers should prioritize efforts by focusing on a sensible mix of projects based on actual need, not politics. Congress has already pledged to stop earmarking; additional reform and accountability measures are necessary to ensure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.
Third, we need to better leverage private capital. Traditional funding mechanisms are inadequate for meeting the growing needs of our economy, businesses and citizens. So it is imperative that we remove regulatory impediments, state and local laws, and outdated attitudes that are taking an estimated $250 billion in global private capital out of play.
If we welcomed, leveraged and invested that private capital into American infrastructure projects, we could create 1.9 million jobs over 10 years and spur untold economic growth.
Fourth, we can’t allow a needlessly cumbersome permitting process to stand in the way of infrastructure development.
We should limit environmental reviews to six months and forgo reviews when no significant environmental impact is expected. Duplicative reviews by state and federal governments should be prevented and, when multiple agencies are involved, a lead agency should be appointed to coordinate actions and move things along. Accelerating the permitting process would quickly mobilize economic activity, construction and hiring from one end of our country to the other.
Finally, we must act with urgency. If we fail to make adequate investments in transportation infrastructure, by 2020 we’ll lose almost $1 trillion in economic growth. Businesses will see their transportation costs rise by $430 billion and the average American household income will drop by more than $700. U.S. exports will decline by $28 billion. Meanwhile, global competitors will surge past us with superior infrastructure that will attract jobs, businesses and capital.
Failure to make adequate investments in infrastructure threatens our economy, jobs, global competitiveness and quality of life. Now is the time for lawmakers to set aside politics, resolve differences, and get moving on commonsense investments in our infrastructure. It’s time to leverage public and private resources to fundamentally bolster our economy, create jobs, and increase productivity.
When many of our citizens — and our competitors — believe that America is falling behind, we must astound the world again with our ingenuity, ambition and dreams. Smart investments in infrastructure are where we should begin.
• Donohue is the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business lobbying group.