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.”
This is a measure of just how dysfunctional the discourse has become in Washington.
While Washington wrangles over even minimal investments in infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers reminds us that $3.6 trillion in investment will be needed by 2020 to get US infrastructure up to grade—not just for safety sake but to compete in a global economy that’s built around ports, bridges, roads, rail and public facilities. At this point, according to the ASCE, the funding shortfall is $1.6 trillion.
That’s a daunting number. Unless you understand the dynamics of the infrastructure debate. That’s where unions that have been focused on these issues for years come into play. For years now, building trades unions such as LIUNA have been in thick of research and advocacy with regard to infrastructure issues. Unions such as the United Steelworkers have focused on how best to produce the steel and other materials needed to rebuild bridges.
These unions do not have to cobble together “quick-fix” proposals. They recognized long ago that, as LIUNA leaders have been saying through their “Build America So America Works” campaign, “Our nation’s approach to transportation infrastructure is functionally obsolete.” And they have worked with engineers and planners to identify and developing plans for smart, efficient and forward-looking investments in the repair and replacement of crumbling bridges, roads, tarmacs and harbors.
They’ve won a few allies in Congress. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chair Barbara Boxer, D-California, is serious about these issues, as are House Committee on Transporation and Infrastructure members such as Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon. And there are Republicans who have shown a willingness to work on these issues; members such as Congressman Richard Hanna, a former Operating Engineers union member from New York who has worked with his old union and others on plans to speed up the approval of infrastructure projects.
Democratic and Republican representatives whose states have been hit with bridge collapses and other crises, such as Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Washington, have become essential advocates. “In 2012, the Federal Highway Administration found that one in nine bridges in America are structurally deficient. That is a shocking statistic for structures that are a cornerstone of our domestic and foreign commerce. Our economy has no chance of recovering, let alone thriving, without supporting the most basic of our infrastructure needs. Even more alarming is the fact that this bridge was not considered structurally deficient. The most basic role of our government is ensuring the safety of the public,” says McDermott. “Without the resources to do so, I worry that avoidable disasters like this will become commonplace. It is time to reinvest in our state and in our country. We can’t afford not to.”
That’s a proper sense of urgency—and common sense concern. But both those commodities are still in short supply in Washington.
It really is time to turn up the volume.
Congress is out of session for the next few days. But when it returns, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee should bring some of the urgency that Americans feel to Washington. They don’t have to listen to any one group of experts or advocates. They can entertain proposals for grants and loans and infrastructure banks. But what they can’t do is deny the necessity of action. And what they shouldn’t do is neglect the insights that can be garnered from the unions that have been saying for years that the United States must get serious about investing in infrastructure.
John Nichols is the author (with Robert w. McChesney) of the upcoming book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. Hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fervent call to action for reformers,” it details how big-money politics warps our national priorities away from vital issues such as infrastructure renewal.