Infrastructure— the essential building block of economic development– is one issue that unites Americans of every political stripe. It is the seed corn of tomorrow’s economy, a down payment for a better future. It’s about jobs, today and tomorrow.
Where to start with a national program? An honest assessment begins by acknowledging that opportunities in America are not always equal, and smart investments in infrastructure can also help level the playing field while building for the future. This is especially true in our rural areas, where lack of access to broadband, higher shipping costs and a dearth of air service hamper economic growth. A turbocharged infrastructure program should explicitly address this structural disadvantage by disproportionately investing in rural infrastructure needs, to the benefit of the entire country.
Likewise, using these projects to leverage job training, apprenticeships and state of the art manufacturing will benefit every corner of this country. When subway cars are manufactured in both Lincoln, Nebraska and Los Angeles, all Americans can take advantage of these good-paying, family-supporting jobs. Making it in America means not just committing to using domestic steel and software; it’s using infrastructure investments to create the same opportunities for middle class jobs and the standard of living that fueled our postwar economic boom.
At the same time, we should focus on helping the jurisdictions who help themselves. Eligibility for any increased infrastructure funding should require matching new local funding. The genius of Federalism as it applies to infrastructure is that project priorities are generally established at the local level. Our transportation system, for example, is most accurately described as local choices that aggregate into a national system. These local choices should be smart, pass an explicit benefit-cost test and be an integral component of local and regional economic development plans. Over the last decade, over 70% of local referenda and self-help measures nationwide have been approved by the voters because they have confidence that elected officials are putting their hard-earned tax dollars toward specific projects that they know and support.
Finally, we can jump-start a national infrastructure program with a merit-based “race to the top”-style competition to eliminate the 50 biggest freight bottlenecks in America. Whether it’s our interstates, freight railroads, inland waterways or ports (or, increasingly, the seams between these systems), companies and citizens alike across America would benefit from faster, cheaper and more predictable movement of goods.
Together, we can build a broad-based bipartisan infrastructure program, one that recognizes that today’s economy is built on the investments made by our parents and grandparents; one that will pay it forward for the next generation (or two, or three).
Today our government can reset and move America forward on the one true bipartisan issue of our times – America’s national infrastructure program.
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