Opinion: We Built the Panama Canal. Surely We Can Fix Infrastructure

Trump’s proposal gets it just about right

While the past century was marked by building triumphs, the U.S. now faces an infrastructure crisis — and a chance to seize the next great American moment, Peterson writes. Above, reel tender Mo Laussie installs fiber-optic cable in June 2001 in Louisville, Colorado. (Michael Smith/Getty Images file photo)
While the past century was marked by building triumphs, the U.S. now faces an infrastructure crisis — and a chance to seize the next great American moment, Peterson writes. Above, reel tender Mo Laussie installs fiber-optic cable in June 2001 in Louisville, Colorado. (Michael Smith/Getty Images file photo)
Posted March 12, 2018 at 5:01am

Few issues have been free of partisan wrangling of late, and few occasions have inspired unified feelings of greatness in our country. Yet the public and private sectors together have an opportunity with infrastructure to chart a different course and seed the path for the next great American moment.

The past 100 years brought some remarkable triumphs in infrastructure. Railroads linked our vast nation. The Panama Canal twice transformed global commerce. The telegraph became broadband.

Just last month, we watched powerful booster rockets launch toward space and land safely again to lay the groundwork for the next mission of exploration.

Americans are still driven to innovate — but our progress on things like driverless cars, smart grids and next-generation aircraft is outpacing our increasingly outdated infrastructure.

Elected members of both political parties often hear from constituents that better-performing infrastructure in their communities means a better economy and quality of life — higher home values, manageable commutes, safe water, reliable power, stronger small businesses and more jobs.

A forward-looking investment in our nation’s infrastructure would take what is becoming a strong headwind and turn it into a boost for jobs and productivity long into the future.

Fortunately, the makings of a large-scale, bipartisan initiative to upgrade America’s infrastructure have been on the table since President Donald Trump took office. The president made infrastructure a signature feature of his campaign — running as a great dealmaker and builder — and Democratic leaders have long been on record that infrastructure is a top priority.

Now, with the Trump administration’s proposal in hand, both sides should commit to seeing a bipartisan solution become reality.

Watch: Ryan Talks Infrastructure at Home Depot Event

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How Trump’s plan fares

As co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Executive Council on Infrastructure, I have worked with a dozen other private sector executives to develop insights to help policymakers modernize U.S. infrastructure.

We are increasingly convinced that a winning, bipartisan deal for the American people must include robust public funding, regulatory streamlining, targeted support for rural communities and a fundamentally new approach that ensures the most efficient use of limited public resources while opening up opportunities for private-sector investment and innovation.

Importantly, the administration’s plan addresses each of these priorities.

Finding additional revenue: First, the administration has proposed to incentivize new local revenue with the goal of increasing overall investment across the country. There will be debate over his particular approach, but we should applaud the president for confronting this need and for encouraging fresh perspectives on the many ways to pay for it, including through partnerships with the private sector.

Also significant is the administration’s commitment to addressing traditional federal responsibilities like the Highway Trust Fund.

Permitting: On permitting, both Congress and the administration already deserve credit for their efforts. Congress made headway in previous highway reauthorization bills, and the president established the “One Federal Decision” framework — and hopefully the accountability needed to bring the process down to two years without undermining environmental concerns.

Now they should work to finish these existing reforms and entrench them for future administrations.

Rural communities: The president is right to provide targeted funding for America’s rural infrastructure, which could fall even farther behind as technology advances. To level the playing field, our council has recommended helping smaller communities bundle their projects to attract private capital and place rural liaisons at federal agencies.

Modernize the way we build: Not everyone has noted the most revolutionary part of the president’s plan: its emphasis on long-term operations and maintenance as well as procurement policies.

Too few state and local governments know what assets they have or what resources those will demand. And when a new asset is built, they typically fail to address the costs of maintaining it over its life.

This makes prioritization impossible, contributes to a deferred maintenance crisis and ignores the extraordinary financial risk to taxpayers.

Any final infrastructure package will need to help these governments adopt a new forward-looking model, one that emphasizes long-term thinking and taps private sector expertise when it makes sense.

An American moment

This is a watershed moment, born of necessity. With the right leadership, we can find a solution for the good of our communities, jobs and sustained growth in this country.

Trump’s proposal is a positive step. Now he must commit personally to getting this done, and Congress must step up as well. There are many voices still to be heard, but the makings of a deal are there.

Doug Peterson is president and chief executive officer of S&P Global and serves as co-chair of BPC’s Executive Council on Infrastructure.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Website | Twitter | Facebook