Opinion

The highway to jobs – via better infrastructure

As Obama and Congress talk jobs, here's an appeal from the US Chamber of Commerce: Invest heavily in roads, air transport, and other infrastructure. The economy and jobs depend on it. Adopt innovative financing, including an infrastructure bank to leverage private investment.

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Throughout America’s history, feats in infrastructure, like the Interstate Highway System, have not only been symbols of national achievement but also conduits for commerce and keys to prosperity.

Today, however, much of this foundation of the US economy is costly, cracked, and crumbling. Roads, rail, airports, and harbors need continual investment to keep pace with demand.

Recent research by the US Chamber of Commerce discovered that underperforming transport infrastructure cost the US economy nearly
$2 trillion in lost gross domestic product in 2008 and 2009. The chamber’s Transportation Performance Index showed that America’s transit system is not keeping up with growing demands and is failing to meet the needs of the business community and consumers.

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Most important, the research proved for the first time that there is a direct relationship between transportation infrastructure performance and GDP.

The index findings also showed that if America invests wisely in infrastructure, it can become more reliable, predictable, and safe. By improving underperforming transport infrastructure, the United States could unlock nearly $1 trillion in economic potential.

Making investments that tackle immediate challenges, like congestion, and that account for growing demand into the future, America would boost productivity and economic growth in the long run and support millions of jobs in the near term.

Investment in infrastructure would also improve quality of life by reducing highway fatalities and accidents and easing traffic congestion that costs the public $115 billion a year in lost time and wasted fuel – $808 out of the pocket of every motorist. Such an investment would also allow the country to better protect the environment while increasing mobility.

If America fails to adequately invest in transportation infrastructure, by 2020 it will lose $897 billion in economic growth. Businesses will see their transportation costs rise by $430 billion, and the average American household income will drop by more than $7,000. US exports will decline by $28 billion. Meanwhile, global competitors will surge past us with superior infrastructure that will attract jobs, businesses, and capital.

So how can the US get its infrastructure to go from insufficient and declining to safe, competitive, and productive? An obvious place to start is for Congress to pass core bills for surface transportation, aviation, and water programs – at current funding levels. Congress must move forward with multiyear reauthorizations to restore the nation’s highways; modernize air traffic control and improve airports; and maintain American ports, harbors, dams, and levees.
Doing so would enable communities to plan projects, hire employees, and prevent devastating layoffs of existing workers. Reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration alone would help keep 70,000 workers on the job.

Next, America should expand energy infrastructure to support growing needs. A great example is the Keystone XL pipeline to connect Canadian oil sands with Texas refineries. The sooner the project is approved and construction begins, the sooner the US can rake in the benefits of added investment and government revenues, job creation, and more resources to fuel energy needs and keep costs down for businesses and consumers.

Likewise, the US can’t let a needlessly cumbersome permitting process stand in the way of infrastructure development. The administration should limit environmental reviews to six months and forgo reviews when no significant environmental impact is expected. Duplicative reviews by state and federal governments should be prevented and, when multiple agencies are involved, a lead agency should be appointed to coordinate actions and move things along. Accelerating the permitting process would quickly mobilize construction and hiring from one end of the country to the other.

In this era of tight government budgets, America must adopt innovative financing approaches and spur on public-private partnerships. A national infrastructure bank must be a part of a long-term investment strategy. An initial government investment of $10 billion could leverage up to $600 billion in private funds.
But regulatory impediments must also be removed. They take an estimated $250 billion in global capital out of play. If that private capital were invested in infrastructure projects, it could create 1.9 million jobs over 10 years and spur untold economic growth.

As for public investments, sooner or later we’ll have to face the fact that the federal fuel tax has not been raised 1 cent in 17 years. The country needs modest, phased-in increase.

Comprehensively restoring America’s infrastructure and revitalizing the economy are monumental tasks. Fortunately, we are the same nation that built our world-class system in the first place. If anyone is up to the challenge, we are.
Thomas J. Donohue is president and chief executive officer of the US Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest business federation.

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