We need to fix our crumbling infrastructure

There’s an old song that aptly describes Congress today when it comes to our nation’s infrastructure. It’s called “You don’t miss your water (’til the well runs dry).”  Our “well” hasn’t run dry — yet — but it’s just a matter of time, and it would be foolish to wait until it does before we start building its replacement. 

Much of our nation’s infrastructure — including many of our roads and bridges, locks and dams, and water and sewer systems — is outdated and crumbling. It’s desperately in need of repair or replacement — and yet, Congress keeps short-changing the federal government’s investment in maintaining and improving this essential foundation of our economy.

The numbers are mind-boggling. A quarter of our major roads are in poor condition, and one out of every nine bridges are structurally deficient. Nearly 800 cities have outdated wastewater collection systems that discharge raw sewage into rivers and streams when it rains. Many locks and dams on our nation’s waterways are decades past their design lives and at risk of catastrophic failures that could devastate regional economies.

There’s a heavy economic cost to such a shortsighted policy. The burden falls on households and businesses alike through higher costs, lower productivity, fewer jobs, lost time and weakened international competitiveness. The Council of Economic Advisers reported last year, for example, that Americans spend 5 billion hours stuck in traffic each year. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently estimated that the annual cost of traffic congestion on freight transportation alone is approaching $200 billion, most of which is passed along to consumers through higher prices. The American Society of Civil Engineers has calculated that the cumulative cost to the U.S. economy of failing to adequately invest in our infrastructure would be more than $3 trillion between 2012 and 2020. Those are significant costs, and they don’t include the economic impact of any catastrophic failures. 

We’re paying a heavy price today for allowing our nation’s infrastructure to crumble, and that price will rise dramatically if we continue on our current course. On the other hand, there would be a substantial economic benefit from increasing our investment in the country’s infrastructure. 

For starters, that increased investment would reduce the burden imposed on us by our crumbling infrastructure in the form of lost fuel, wasted time, higher costs and fewer jobs. Investing more in our nation’s infrastructure now would actually save us money over the long run. 

In addition, increased investments in our nation’s infrastructure would provide the added benefit of stimulating both short- and long-term economic growth. Private sector analysts  Standard & Poor’s projected that investing an additional 1 percent of U.S. GDP ($160 billion) in infrastructure construction in 2015 would increase our GDP by $270 billion between 2015 and 2017 — and promote future economic growth by “allowing goods and services to be transported more quickly and at lower costs.” That’s a pretty decent return on our investment.

Increased investment in infrastructure would create new jobs as well — from the long-term economic growth it would produce as well as the near-term construction it would require. While the official unemployment rate is now 5 percent, the labor participation rate is also unusually low; millions of Americans would re-enter the workforce if additional opportunities arose — including many construction workers. The number of people working in construction jobs hit 6.4 million in October, the highest since 1999 — but still far below the 2006 level of more than 7.7 million. Estimates vary substantially, but there’s widespread consensus that each $1 billion invested in infrastructure construction creates at least 10,000 jobs. Standard & Poor’s estimated that investing an additional 1 percent of GDP would create more than 700,000 new jobs.

Unfortunately, while investing in our nation’s infrastructure is a proven and productive way to stimulate economic growth and create new jobs, we’ve been cutting back in recent years — and struggling pitifully just to maintain the current inadequate level of investment. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that, adjusted for inflation, federal investments in transportation and water resources had fallen by 20 percent since 2003. Congress isn’t investing enough to properly maintain the infrastructure we’ve got — and certainly not enough to build the infrastructure our economy will need in the coming years. 

We can’t keep taking our nation’s infrastructure needs for granted. We’re going to have to pay for them at some point. We can make the smart choice — sacrifice now to make productive investments, and get a substantial return on those investments in the near future — or we can stick our heads in the sand, choose the status quo and impose rapidly rising burdens on American households and businesses. That might be the politically popular choice today, but there’ll be hell to pay when that well runs dry.

Doyle represents Pennsylvania’s 14th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1995. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee.