Infrastructure is an American problem that needs an immediate solution by marshalling all the available resources from the local, state and federal governments, as well as the private sector.
The United States has been having “infrastructure week” every week since 2009, yet there is never any action to address the problem. We simply are not getting anything done legislatively to put the pieces in place to begin improving our infrastructure. The problem is right in front of our faces and all we do is ignore it, fight about it, litigate it, kick the can further down the road and then, if we are lucky, pass half-baked bills that take 10 to 20 years to solve a problem.
China, our most serious geopolitical international rival, sees a problem and they fix it. They build dams, highways, airports and entire cities in the same amount of time it takes us to debate what to name something. In China, they have constructed 25,000 miles of high-speed rail. America has zero. China has built 500 cities from scratch, nearly cornered the market in 5G, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, artificial intelligence, battery technology and the supply of rare earth metals.
China used more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the United States consumed in the entire 20th century, and to add insult to injury they used U.S. capital to pay for it. Some pundits say we are not losing to China; we already lost.
Our most basic infrastructure — roads, bridges, public drinking/wastewater systems, dams, airports, electrical grid and mass transit systems — need massive upgrades and restoration. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) said in its 2017 Infrastructure Report that the country will need to invest $4.59 trillion by 2025 to just improve its condition.
For some reason we have a nagging and widespread inability to act on infrastructure to build things. The time has come for every level of the public and private sectors, in cooperation and coordination, to take decisive action to address this problem head on. Perhaps we should create a “Marshall Plan” for the United States of America. Rightfully so, we have been very successful helping other countries (Europe, Japan, South Korea, China) throughout history rebuild their country’s infrastructure and economies. Perhaps it is wise to turn our collective attention and resources on our massive shortcomings.
This effort cannot solely fall on the federal government. As we all know, the feds have racked up a $30 trillion national debt already. Consequently, it will take a truly national effort.
First, Wall Street, investment banks, pension funds, investors, private companies and governments need to invest capital in infrastructure right here at home. The traditional government financing of infrastructure, by granting “free” money, will have a part but it can be limited, and federal funds can be leveraged with other public and private monies to exponentially increase the total amount of project financing available.
For example, financing strategies already exist in public law (SRF, WIFIA, CWISF) that allow the federal government to grant ultra-low interest revolving loans to local and state authorities to construct/improve a multitude of public infrastructure projects. Since these funds are considered loans, they must be paid back over an extended term. As the loans and interest are paid back, those funds can be leveraged to invest in additional public infrastructure projects, which drastically reduces or eliminates future federal outlays of deficit spending.
A reliable infrastructure system strengthens the nation’s economy, enhances public safety, increases the tax base, increases employment, and can improve the quality of life. It is high time we stop kicking the can down the road on infrastructure investment. For every year we delay, the cost continues to rise. As our rivals and competitors continue to make massive investments in their infrastructure and economies, the United States continues for fall further and further behind strategically, economically and culturally.
As Winston Churchill once said; “America is like a giant boiler, light a fire under it and there is no limit to the amount of heat it can generate.” It is time to light the fire, my fellow Americans.
John Winkler is general manager of the Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District.