By ADAM LEVIN
Experts agree that a large-scale national infrastructure investment program would be a major step to modernize our nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, electrical grid, harbors and public buildings, as well as put thousands of skilled craftsmen back to work. So why hasn’t Congress adopted one yet?
For one thing, the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) June 3, the Senate champion of a national infrastructure, was a blow to Congressional Democrats and the White House in their effort to gain majorities in both houses of Congress to support constructing a U.S. infrastructure bank. Lautenberg was one of the strongest promoters of a national infrastructure bank.
In February 2013, Lautenberg and fellow Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced a new version of their 2011 American Infrastructure Investment Fund Act, which died at the end of the last Congressional session. It called for an infrastructure investment fund (the word “bank” was not used) within the U.S. Department of Transportation, funded at $5 billion.
President Obama has also been sympathetic to the issue. The New York Times reported on March 29 that Obama “promoted an infrastructure bank that would use $10 billion in public money to leverage private investment, a concept he has been pushing without success since 2011.”
This triggered Speaker John Boehner’s infamous and bizarre comment that “It’s easy to go out there and be Santa Claus” with public money, “but at some point, somebody has to pay the bill.”
On the other hand, St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Aboussie says he’s “not sure [Obama’s proposal] is big enough.”
Notably, the American Society of Civil Engineers has argued strongly for infrastructure, telling Bloomberg.com that $3.6 trillion “needs to be spent to put the nation’s critical systems in a state of good repair”. They estimate that based on the current rate of investment, “the U.S. economy will have lost 3.5 million jobs and $3.1 trillion in gross domestic product by 2020. Spending an extra $157 billion a year would avert these losses”.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce agrees: They have joined with the ASCE frequently to broadcast the importance of infrastructure. The Chamber teamed up with the National Association of Water Companies in February 2013 to create waterisyourbusiness.org, which lobbies for fixing the nation’s broken pipe system.
The AFL-CIO and the federation’s building trades department have been lobbying congress for years to address the country’s aging infrastructure.
Here in St. Louis, Aboussie is frustrated with the federal governments inability to create coherent transportation and infrastructure policy. “We’ve been kicking the can with federal transportation bills that never seem to get passed,” he says.
In Missouri, a Republican-led filibuster killed a one-cent sales tax increase for highway construction in the Missouri General Assembly.
Aboussie was a strong supporter of the tax, citing business interests desire for investment locations with reliable infrastructure support. “I think when you look to companies that relocate or expand…infrastructure is important to that. [Companies] are going to want to know if you have adequate infrastructure in place.”
What is not in place is enthusiasm for the issue. For now, federal, state and local investment for public works is meager.
“You might call it treading water,” Aboussie said of St. Louis’s small-scale repair and construction efforts. “I would call it going backwards.”