San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. (Shutterstock)
“How many more bridges must collapse, how many people must be hurt or die and how many billions of dollars must be drained from our economy before Congress makes investing in the basic infrastructure of our country a priority?”
That was the question from Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, after last week’s collapse of the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Skagit River in Washington State.
O’Sullivan has asked it before.
In fact, he and his union have been focused on infrastructure issues for so long that they don’t just have questions. They’ve got answers.
Which prompts another question: Is Washington ready to listen to the people who have been saying for years that we can’t afford to keep neglecting and shortchanging our nation’s infrastructure?
It is no secret that Congress turns to business leaders for advice and counsel on national priorities. In fact, there are days when it seems that Washington does nothing else.
But as attention again turns to the question of how to respond to crumbling infrastructure, it would be foolish and irresponsible to neglect the work of groups like the American Society of Civil Engineers—which now gives an overall grade of “D+” when weighing the condition of the country’s infrastructure—and the unions that have embraced, highlighted and expanded upon the ASCE’s report cards.
Congress does not have to reinvent the wheel. But it does need to start listening to the people who got serious about these issues a long time ago.
And it needs a sense of perspective that seems to be missing from official Washington.
To his credit, President Obama has been pushing for the development of a national infrastructure bank, asking: “What are we waiting for? There’s work to be done. There are workers who are ready to do it. Let’s prove to the world that there’s no better place to do business than right here in the United States of America, and let’s get started rebuilding America.”
But Obama’s proposals represent only a modest pushback against the austerity agenda that says Washington cannot respond even to immediate challenges. The infrastructure bank plan, as currently imagined, would use $10 billion in public money to leverage private investment. The president also wants to add $4 billion to grant programs that were part of stimulus program. And even that gets him derision from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for trying to “be Santa Claus.”