Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, America has so many challenges and so many needs. Faced with a damaged economy, political polarization and communities in need of federal support, it is hard to know where to start.
But that combination of woes should lead the nation’s leaders to one strategy that can address them all at once — America must finally launch an infrastructure-rebuilding program.
Leaders from both parties have repeatedly floated the prospect of an infrastructure plan for years, only to have the discussions preempted by partisan rancor. Now President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, which he introduced in Pittsburgh last week, could hold great promise, provided lawmakers hammer out genuine compromise on issues such as the scope of the projects included and the tax increase Biden wants to fund them.
The partisan divide that has defined government in recent years actually could be addressed by an infrastructure plan. Not only will this plan require a cooperative effort from Democrats and Republicans, but also both parties stand to gain much by finally delivering a federal program to rebuild the nation’s deteriorating roads, bridges, airports and more. This will require honest bipartisan problem-solving, the likes of which has been rarely seen in these days of polarized grandstanding. Congress now must roll up its sleeves and work together.
In so doing, there is the promise of healing, building relationships and trust between elected leaders who have lost their taste for aisle-crossing efforts in recent years. Unlike nearly every other issue facing our country, there is not fundamental partisan disagreement about the need to address the decades of neglect to our nation’s vital infrastructure. And the disagreements about whether it ought to include provisions that expand Medicaid, protect organized labor and prioritize green energy, as President Biden wants, can be hashed out by lawmakers working in good faith toward a real solution. Because American needs this solution.
The World War II generation built up America with the New Deal Works Progress Administration projects and then continued after the war with the Eisenhower administration’s interstate highway system. Two generations later, the American Society of Civil Engineers has been trying to sound the alarm about the poor shape of the country’s infrastructure with its annual report card. The latest such report gave the nation a C-minus, which is an improvement over D-plus from the year before. Below average is not good enough.
Decades of under-funding and deferred maintenance are to blame. The society of engineers estimates the United States needs to spend about $2 trillion to rehab the roads and bridges, dams and water systems, schools and parks, and other infrastructure. While we are at it, this country needs to modernize its energy grid and expand access to broadband internet.
The country’s aging and deteriorating infrastructure is an obvious safety hazard. Consider the 2018 study that estimated about 6% of Ohio’s more than 27,000 bridges are structurally deficient. And reflect on the report that revealed about 740 of Pennsylvania’s 3,400 dams are “high hazard,” meaning they’re likely to cause loss of life if they fail.
Beyond the danger, our ailing infrastructure is an impediment to the growth and revitalization that this country needs now more than ever. The Greatest Generation’s federal building programs not only put a nation to work, but also they set the groundwork for business to thrive and for communities to grow and prosper.
This country has some major rebuilding to do. We have to rebuild our society and our economy. We have to rebuild a political system in which leaders from both parties can solve problems together. And we have to literally rebuild the crucial infrastructure our communities need to function. An ambitious federal infrastructure program is the place to begin.