Stop Bickering, Start Legislating

Changing the way we view infrastructure could change the way we fund it

By Zack Johnston

We have officially entered into what is expected to be America’s most expensive election campaign cycle yet. Billions of dollars will be flowing to candidates traveling the country between now and 2020 as they make their pitch to constituents. With all the pressing issues lying ahead of us, it makes you wonder: How else could we be spending all that money?

What truly needs to be on the receiving end of this cash flow is an effective federal infrastructure policy. Talks have been in the works between our elected officials about forming a policy, but it grows clearer every day that the political upheavals of Washington are simply too strong.

Manuel Lazerov puts the whole funding debacle in simpler terms in his column: “General taxation becomes a default, where- in projects are built, lifecycle costs are suppressed for political purposes, and projects eventually fall apart for failure to properly maintain them. This is exactly what has gotten us to where we are today, with trillions of dollars of deficient infrastructure.”

In today’s divisive political climate we often chalk up any kind of federal action as partisan wins and loses, but here the score- board is looking pretty bleak. When it comes to infrastructure and the lack of real policy making, the true losses are with those whose daily lives get negatively impacted by the inaction.

Seemingly the only consensus to be reached so far is that a kind of modern national infrastructure enhancement project is greatly needed, and that it will be expensive.

The million dollar question – or shall I say $2 trillion question – is how do we fund it? What motivates us to spend resources on fixing and upgrading roads, bridges, and water systems at the level a campaign spends resources? Infrastructure overhaul is always going to have a high price tag, but we appear to be in a now-or-never situation with not much time for waiting around.

A handful of states and municipalities can sense where this crumbling road leads to, and have taken a hard turn toward getting some results. According to a column from Mary Scott Nabers, many states and cities are jumping ahead of Congress, securing alternative funding for projects, and even have construction or repairs in progress at this moment.

“Visionary leaders are launching projects related to the repair of aging infrastructure, installation of clean energy projects, integration of smart city technology, construction of social infrastructure projects, and/or revitalization of downtown areas. The projects will require contracting from almost all industry sectors,” Nabers described.

While this is great news for our infrastructure and for our private sector builders, the lack of federal funding on these projects is causing cities and states to turn to the taxpayers to help foot the bill, often in the form of a new sales tax or gas tax.

The point here is that, yes, these cities and states should serve as an example to the rest of the country that improved infrastructure can start and end at home; however, why should the side effects be felt at the gas pump?

The reality is that many of these kinds of projects consist of replacements and repairs on infrastructure systems that have been in place longer than most public works officials care to admit. The vast majority of public works spending is funded through the state and local levels, but it goes toward maintenance and repairs far more than it does capital projects.

If we want our infrastructure situation to change, then we have to be willing to change along with it.

When it comes to getting over the funding hurdle, Kevin Price observes that a “lack of awareness and top-tier backing to support technology investments are potential roadblocks to overcoming this challenge.”

Actionable solutions that involve officials on the local, state, and federal levels need to be enacted to start seeing real changes happen without letting the cost burden be felt too heavily on any one side. It will take time and work, but to do nothing is the same as making it worse.

Any car owner knows that those squeaky brakes only get worse, and will end up costing more to fix the longer you wait to deal with them. If our infrastructure is our car, then those brakes are screaming for mercy, and the only solution is to take it to the shop.

New and improved infrastructure is essential. Just like our water and electricity, stable and practical infrastructure is necessary for our working daily lives.

The current trajectory of maintaining and repairing aging systems will ultimately lead to greater wasteful spending. This moment, however, can be seen as a golden opportunity. In some cases, what we have is not only old, it is obsolete, and we can be looking at newer options that make more sense in peoples’ daily lives.

Let’s continue to implement creative, multilateral solutions now, or we will have to deal with an even more severe problem later on.

Zack Johnston is an Assistant Editor for American Infrastructure Magazine. He can be reached at zack@penpubinc.com.

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