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The Infrastructure Edge

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This was a post on the Doing What Works project’s competitiveness blog.

Infrastructure may be the least sexy word in the English language, but it’s one of the most important.  There are two startling facts about our competitors that highlight our economic challenge when it comes to the state of our infrastructure. China’s Port of Shanghai has almost as much container capacity as all U.S. ports combined. And Singapore, a nation of less than 4 million people and under 260 square miles, has global port capacity that outstrips the combined volume of our largest ports in California and New York. These countries understand that investing in state-of-the-art infrastructure is essential to maintaining their competitiveness in today’s global marketplace.

Contrast these examples with the American track record on infrastructure and our staggering needs.  Rolling blackouts and inefficiencies in the U.S. electrical grid cost an estimated $80 billion a year. From 1980 to 2006 the number of miles traveled increased 97 percent for cars and 106 percent for trucks.  But over the same period the number of highway lanes grew by only 4.4 percent. While the federal share of infrastructure investment has declined, total investment in infrastructure, adjusted for inflation, is the same as in 1968, just 2.5 percent of gross domestic product. And that’s when our population was just over 200 million. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that we need to spend $185 billion more every year just to repair our current infrastructure. Meanwhile, China is investing 9 percent of GDP in infrastructure, while Europe and India’s investment rates are 5 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

We must get serious about our future and investing in our infrastructure. The first step is to craft a national strategy aimed at ensuring America’s long-term competitiveness. Ports, airports, freight rail, roads, bridges, water systems, and a modern electrical grid are essential infrastructure elements that must be central to a competitiveness strategy. Such a strategy would include a multiyear plan for smarter investment and prioritize the improvement projects necessary to increase exports and smooth transport of goods within the United States.

The establishment of a National Infrastructure Bank would help ensure that the most economically beneficial projects receive priority attention in funding and construction. Building America’s Future, an organization that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and I formed, strongly supports the creation of this bank. The current project approvals process needs to be streamlined so that important projects can be built faster, and in a way that ensures our environment is safeguarded. It took only 437 days after the horrific 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis for the span to be rebuilt.  This should serve as model for future projects.  We can and we must shorten the time for completion of infrastructure projects.

The challenges we face are great but so are the opportunities.  A 21st century infrastructure provides greater reliability and more efficient movement of people and goods, and will keep America moving. It will also provide lasting economic dividends for future generations.  Our nation’s economic competitiveness depends on it if we want to be on top in the global marketplace.  Failure to achieve this goal is not an option.

Edward Rendell is the governor of Pennsylvania.

This was a post on the Doing What Works project’s competitiveness blog.

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