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American Infrastructure Legislation: Is There the Will to Win?

American Infrastructure Legislation: Is There the Will to Win?

The effort is bipartisan, so must be its passage and budgeting.

As in every spring, along with the blooming trees and the spring flowers, so also bloom the bone-jarring potholes and unsettling rust patches on aging bridges. Unlike the past, though, recent reports out of Washington report the White House and Congress have set their sights on a $2 trillion American infrastructure plan and associated bill. Now the question becomes more obvious: is there the political will to assure critical infrastructure funding and make it law?

Construction and manufacturing associations agree the U.S. infrastructure situation is critical. The chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America, Stephen E. Sandherr issued the following statement in reaction to the agreement between President Trump, Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Schumer to pass a $2 trillion infrastructure plan package: “Congress and the administration need to act quickly to convert this bipartisan agreement into a comprehensive infrastructure measure that will fund significant upgrades to our aging and over-burdened infrastructure. Once enacted, these American infrastructure improvements will cut commuting times, lower shipping costs, support new economic development projects and allow our businesses to remain globally competitive for years to come.”

Earlier this year, the National Association of Manufacturers updated its comprehensive American infrastructure plan proposal “Building to Win,” first released in 2016. Each year, the World Economic Forum includes critical infrastructure as one of its key measures of economic competitiveness. For 2017–2018, the United States ranked behind many of its biggest global competitors at 9th in overall infrastructure quality.

Manufacturers and families continue to rely on outdated roads, bridges, waterways, ports, runways and drinking water and wastewater systems, many of which are more than 50 years old. Global competitors are making strategic decisions to invest in their futures. China’s infrastructure investment is almost double the size of U.S. infrastructure spending, and India’s infrastructure investments triples the infrastructure outlays of the United States, Canada and Mexico combined.

A 2017 PricewaterhouseCoopers report highlights that a $1 trillion American infrastructure plan investment could create 11 million jobs. Approximately 10 percent of infrastructure jobs would be in manufacturing, with specific needs for skilled workers in fields such as information technology and data science. Construction and manufacturing jobs have a powerful multiplier effect on our economy – for every $1.00 spent in manufacturing, the economy grows by $1.89.

Increasing Political Support for Infrastructure Plan Funding

But can such purposeful legislation progress to passage in an increasingly toxic and gridlocked Washington? One “Building to Win” strategy is to establish an independent federal commission to evaluate priorities and revenue options. Many states have created independent transportation commissions to oversee statewide planning and project selection.

Empowering a bipartisan commission would depoliticize the decision-making process, and linking revenue proposals to a national strategic plan would also raise confidence that American infrastructure funds would be spent judiciously. Both factors should alleviate obstacles to approving new revenue sources or raising fuel tax rates.

American Infrastructure Funds - Must It Be Taxes?

In addition to position papers and mobilizing their members, business and trade groups have been meeting with White House officials to emphasize the importance of shoring up the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road improvements and transit systems. Federal fuel taxes supply most of the money that goes into the trust fund, but the purchasing power of the gas tax has declined as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient.

Some 30 states have enacted fuel tax increases to raise money for local roads and bridges over the past six years, but Congress has not approved a fuel tax increase since 1993. It now stands at 18.3 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.3 cents a gallon for diesel.

Advocacy groups are trying to make the case that state politicians supportive of gas tax increases have not been punished at the ballot box. "The political playbook has changed. People will vote for infrastructure even if it means new user fees," said Linda Bauer Darr, president & CEO of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC). Darr moderated a panel of the CEOs of some of the nation's most powerful infrastructure-focused trade associations at the ACEC Convention in Washington, DC recently. One panelist, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Executive Director Jim Tymon said, "The politics of gas tax increases is not falling along traditional partisan lines, and more importantly it hasn't cost state legislators their seats. I'm hopeful Congress will look at that and get some courage."

Other reasons for hope emerging are that aging infrastructure needs may be met by 21st Century technology. Last year, The Economist identified new methods of monitoring structures to help engineers spot problems before they become critical. Instead of the arduous task of climbing up bridges or erecting scaffolding, camera drones can easily take a close-up picture of just about any part of a bridge. Electronic sensors can provide regular readings of any movement in the structure. And laser scanners are capable of picking up fine details and displaying them as a three-dimensional image. All this should help, but only if organizations exist to ensure that careful monitoring and preventive maintenance take place.

There also has been huge progress in materials science, so much so that it is now possible to tinker with the internal structure of substances to make concrete more robust and steel better at resisting rust. Ultra-high-performance concrete is already being made in some countries to toughen buildings. Self-healing concrete, where cracks are sealed by a chemical reaction that occurs when cracks appear in the surface, is also being explored. 

The need is obvious, business cases are being made and technology solutions are emerging. Can a federal solution to American critical infrastructure funding take advantage of them?

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray Construction.