Marcia Hale: Invest in Transformational Infrastructure to Build for the Future

February 20, 2018

Earlier this month in my home state of South Carolina, Amtrak suffered its third high-profile crash in less than two months. Two people died in the accident, and over 100 were injured. The incident is still under investigation, but it is a sharp reminder that the bill for investing in our infrastructure is well past due.

There is a clear federal role to play in rebuilding our infrastructure, and our leaders have a responsibility to address the problem. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the cumulative neglect of our infrastructure has resulted in a D+ grade. Our cities and states deserve better than crumbling roads, bridges, and rails that jeopardize safety and cause unnecessary delays.

The president’s infrastructure plan released this week is a good start. But the only way to fix the problem is a massive federal investment to repair and modernize our roads and other systems. We must increase funding for projects that already work and promote innovation. And we must invest in transformational projects such as high-speed rail, which improves mobility across regions for a substantial number of people.

The US has led the way in developing innovative infrastructure projects that boosted our productivity and made us the world’s strongest economy. We need to replicate that vision and continue to take bold steps. Innovative and transformational infrastructure projects can do that, but they need to be based on sound economics, accountability, and sustainability. Above all, we need to use these criteria to determine which projects are of national significance and can be justified through rigorous economic analysis and will be seen as necessary and important by the citizens who will use them. We need to make sure we invest for the future in a way that recognizes the difference between long-term investment and short-term spending.

For instance, our leaders must prioritize the Hudson Tunnel, which has played a critical role in the economic growth of the New York City metropolitan region and the entire nation. The Northeast Corridor region is home to more than 51 million people and 4 of the nation’s 10 largest metropolitan areas. The economies of all the region’s cities are connected, and together, they generate 20 percent of the entire US gross domestic product. When there are delays, millions of people are directly or indirectly affected by the disruption. The Northeast Corridor Commission has projected that the US economy would lose $100 million per day, or $36.5 billion per year, if the Northeast Corridor were to shut down. Our schools, companies, and nonprofits cannot afford the inefficiency caused by delays and disruptions. Riders should not have to live each day wondering if they will be an hour late to work because of broken rails or if their colleagues will make it to a meeting at all. We must prioritize the infrastructure problems of major projects like the Hudson Tunnel. 

Some have said that this is a local challenge to be dealt with by states without any federal role. This could not be further from the truth. While all levels of government have a responsibility to fund infrastructure, this must not fall solely on states and cities. The federal government must trust and challenge mayors and governors to understand what they need for their communities and to grant them flexibility and funding to carry out needed projects.

Sustainably funding these investments is essential. We must modernize the gas tax and index it to inflation, which we have not done since 1993. If we do not do this, the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money by 2020. Twenty-four states have raised their gas tax since 2013, and 91 percent of those who voted to increase their state’s gas tax were reelected.

Additionally, we need to establish a national infrastructure bank to attract private investment. Though public-private partnerships are only a tool in solving this issue, they may be suitable for large projects with a dedicated revenue stream. Some projects allow for private investment and a higher return than 3 percent, so we must look at the project in terms of the kind of return investors will get.

The key to going back to when our nation prioritized investing in transformational projects is bipartisanship. We need to put party politics aside to maintain the infrastructure we have and build for the future. Short-term patches will not give us the resources we need to fix our crumbling roads, rails, and ports, and we need to overhaul our transportation infrastructure systems for them to work.

To make this happen, we need strong presidential leadership and the willingness of our congressional leaders to make tough decisions. Our economy depends on having reliable and modern infrastructure, and we will not remain the world’s number one economy without it. We need to secure bipartisanship again and build infrastructure that will make future generations proud.

Marcia Hale is president of Building America’s Future, a national and bipartisan coalition dedicated to smart infrastructure investment and reform. Previously, she was assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs at the White House and has held senior positions in government and national campaigns.