Who condemned America’s infrastructure to further deterioration? And who made sure that hundreds of thousands of unemployed construction and manufacturing workers across our nation remain without decent work? Take a look inside Congress for the culprits.
Last week a minority of conservative senators blocked President Barack Obama’s proposed Rebuild America Jobs Act, which would have created a National Infrastructure Bank to finance anywhere from $50 billion to $500 billion of urgently needed repairs and upgrades to our increasingly dilapidated national infrastructure. This shortsighted vote could prove perilous given the extent of erosion across every element of our infrastructure from roads, to bridges, to rail systems, to our transit networks. The vote also means that hundreds of thousands of jobs will not be created over the next six years.
The party line vote—with every Republican senator voting against this bill—was because they could not bring themselves to support a reasonable, time-limited, and highly popular 0.7 percent tax increase on earnings over $1 million, or the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. The hard-line Republican stance against the temporary tax increase on millionaires meant that even the Republican co-sponsor of the federal National Infrastructure Bank legislation, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), voted against the measure—even though she said this the day before the vote:
In 2008, it was estimated that we had to make an annual investment of $225 billion for the next 50 years to legitimately meet our transportation needs. Right now, we aren’t even close to that—and Washington’s budget mess means we must find creative ways to do more with less. A national infrastructure bank is a perfect example of how we can do this — by helping put private investment to work.
Sen. Hutchison hit the nail on the head. The recently passed Budget Control Act of 2011—the bill that ended the debt limit standoff in Congress this past summer after conservatives in Congress held our nation’s credit rating hostage and eventually ensured the loss of our AAA sovereign bond rating—allows for few openings to increase spending on critical national priorities such as making sure our bridges are safe and our transportation systems work. Nevertheless, the same tired hyper-partisan strategy of “just saying no” led all of the Senate Republicans to vote against the infrastructure jobs bill.
Now, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and James Inhofe (R-OK) are trying to make the best of a bad situation. They are proposing a two-year extension of the Surface Transportation Bill, known as SAFETEA-LU, but with no increase over the current level of funding for infrastructure improvements. That means little progress can be made on the backlog of more than 70,000 bridges in need of repair, nearly half of our roads that are in poor or mediocre condition, or the $8 billion needed in capital repairs needed to bring our nation’s public railroad system, Amtrak, up to par.
Senate Democrats including Sen. Boxer had hoped that the flat-funded two-year extension bill would move out of committee in some way linked to Senate passage of legislation to launch the Infrastructure Bank. But with the defeat of the Infrastructure Bank legislation, the best-case scenario for infrastructure repairs is sustaining the current level of transportation funding for the next two years.
That’s bad news.
The Senate surface transportation extension, however, does provide a glimmer of hope by increasing funding for the existing Department of Transportation loan program known as TIFIA, which stands for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. The increase of funds from $122 million to $1 billion, while a hefty increase, would provide only 10 percent of the financing power that the Infrastructure Bank would have offered. Even if the TIFIA program increase is adopted, overall federal infrastructure spending would still not be sufficient to outpace the additional repairs that mount up each year.
More level-headed Republican leaders at the state level are aghast and taking action. Just two weeks ago, Mary Fallin, the Republican governor of Oklahoma, announced that under her watch, the 706 structurally deficit bridges in her state will be repaired using state funds. And Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan is now the champion of a vehicle registration fee increase to pay for a massive increase in the level of state funding for infrastructure improvements.
Even House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH) has given permission to the chairman of the Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica (R-FL), to look for ways to avoid cutting transportation funding in fiscal year 2012, which began last month—never mind that the House Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development already passed a 34 percent cut of transportation funding in the appropriations bill for FY 2012.
Cuts to urgently needed federal infrastructure funds are reckless on safety grounds but they are also irresponsible on economic grounds. The 2008 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index ranked America’s infrastructure among the 10 best in the world. This year our ranking dropped to 24th, behind nearly every major European nation, Singapore, Australia, and Canada. Our ranking declined for the simple reason that we have failed to adequately invest in repairing and modernizing our infrastructure while competitors are doing just the opposite.
One reason these other countries are able to make so much progress is that they have effective public financial institutions like the proposed U.S. Infrastructure Bank—financial institutions that invest with private partners in worthy large-scale and state-of-the-art infrastructure improvements. The European Investment Bank, for instance, has $300 billion to invest in worthy large-scale public infrastructure projects.
If Congress has any hope of getting above its current 15 percent approval rating with the American public, then they need to be singularly focused on the crying need to grow jobs and enhance our standing in the global economy. The main thing that matters to Americans is Congress taking bipartisan action to create jobs and economic growth now, and they know that it’s all that matters for our nation’s prospects in the future. The members of Congress who voted against these reasonable measures out of pure partisanship are out of step with the American people and tragically they are putting the common good of Americans at great risk.
Donna Cooper is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.