Repairing the nation’s infrastructure will take vision — and lots of money

WCPO Cincinnati
By Ellen WeissPat LaFleur
May 11, 2017

There are some things that Democrats and Republicans agree on and fixing our nation’s infrastructure is one of them. It’s falling apart, it’s obsolete and it’s old.

Among the nation’s most urgent needs: Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky’s own Brent Spence Bridge, which carries Interstates 71 and 75 over the Ohio River. Nearly 200,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day, and officials estimate roughly 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product relies on the Brent Spence.

Officials with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet are quick to clarify that the bridge is “structurally sound,” but “functionally obsolete,” meaning it is at no risk of falling, but is not equipped to handle current traffic volumes.

The Brent Spence is not alone. According to a Washington Post analysis, the national average of “structurally deficient” bridges per county is 9.4 percent. Here’s how the Tri-State stacks up:

“Many things that were built in even the 19th century are still in operation,” said Rosabeth Kantor Moss, who teaches at Harvard Business School and is an expert on infrastructure. “We haven’t invested all that should be invested. Not only to maintain them, but also to reinvent them.”

President Trump’s first 100 days have come and gone, but his promise to invest $1 trillion repairing the nation’s roads, rail systems, bridges, electrical grid, airports and all the other things that keep the country running has seen no action. As with previous administrations, improving infrastructure always comes down to one question: Who’s going to pay?

Speaking to a joint session of Congress in February, the president said his national rebuilding plan will be “financed through both public and private capital.” In early May, Trump told Bloomberg News he would consider raising the federal tax on gasoline to help pay for infrastructure spending. The 18.4-cent federal gasoline tax has not been increased since 1993. White House spokesman Sean Spicer immediately backtracked, saying Trump did not endorse or support a tax hike on gasoline.

It hasn’t always been this way.

Going back to the 19th century, the intercontinental railroad was built to help defend and get settlements to the territory that the U.S. had acquired.

In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. The bill created a 41,000-mile “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” that would eliminate unsafe roads, inefficient routes, traffic jams and other obstacles that get in the way of “speedy, safe transcontinental travel,” according to Eisenhower. At the same time, highway advocates argued, “in case of atomic attack on our key cities, the road net [would] permit quick evacuation of target areas.”

“But after that, the taste for these big expenditures started declining,” Kantor Moss said. “Other countries caught up with us. The countries we had defeated in World War II in Europe and in Japan, they started building modern high-speed systems. We didn’t.”

Kantor Moss said we need the federal government to have a national vision for what’s in our national interest because so much infrastructure spans states and jurisdictions. But that’s not enough, she said. Local and state politicians need to take the lead.

“Mayors are incredibly, increasingly, visionary about the needs of their regions,” she said.

Another idea, according to Kantor Moss, is an infrastructure bank. “We need some funding mechanism that’s devoid of politics that has a group of experts who make professional decisions, based of course on priorities set by public officials. But that can make good professional decisions, that can tap multiple sources of funding.”

Kantor Moss said we need a rationale for infrastructure now that talks about our economic opportunities for the future.

“We won’t attract jobs into the United States or keep jobs in the United States without the transportation, for example, to get goods from place to place. Without outstanding ports that work efficiently, so that exporters in the U.S. can get their goods out to international markets.”

Fixing bad bridges and broken highways is personal, too. The average American wastes 37 hours a year stuck in traffic. That’s a huge loss in worker productivity and less time at home for working parents.

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