Infrastructure Matters

New Bill Invests in Our Safety and Our Economy

It may be unseemly to start gleaning lessons from Japan’s tragedy. But the American political elite has a short attention span. The faster we focus on what we can learn from the tragedy, the more likely it is that elected officials will act. The resilience of this extraordinary island nation in the face of three simultaneous catastrophes—an epic earthquake, massive tidal wave, and the prospect of a nuclear meltdown—is admirable. But we should also note their wisdom in ensuring they have infrastructure capable of resisting horrific natural disasters.

Consider that the Japanese earthquake was 100 times stronger than the 7.0 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 Haitians in January 2010. Far fewer Japanese citizens will perish from the natural disaster directly, not simply because it hit a rural area. Tens of thousands of lives were spared because the Japanese invest heavily in their nation’s infrastructure.

This contrast between Japan and Haiti serves as a poignant backdrop for a national debate on the merits of Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson’s (R-TX) BUILD Act. This bill, introduced yesterday, establishes a national infrastructure bank to independently evaluate and issue federal loans and loan guarantees for the most essential large-scale infrastructure projects across the nation.

To be sure, some of the famous Japanese high-speed rail lines are down and many rural roads are impassable. But live news shots in the region show most bridges and roads are being safely crossed by rescue vehicles, water systems in much of the region are still standing, and many ports or airports are still functioning even in areas close to the earthquake zone.

Why? Because the Japanese don’t do infrastructure on the cheap.

America didn’t either, at least, not until recently. Our federal, state, and local infrastructure investment was the envy of the world for decades. But our federal infrastructure spending has slipped behind our competitors in recent years. For instance, Japan’s public investment in infrastructure for most of the last two decades was two to three times higher than that in the United States.

Critics of Japanese-style economic planning argue that not all its infrastructure spending was prudent. Maybe so. But it’s also true that citizens in nearly every Japanese city can rely on transit systems to get them where they need to go for work, shopping, or entertainment. Their bullet train systems traverse more than 1,500 miles at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour—carrying more than 353 million passengers a year. Yesterday, just three days after sustaining the fifth-biggest earthquake anywhere in the world in the last century, some of the Japanese high-speed-rail system was functioning and most routes are expected to be up and running in a few days.

That’s why Kerry and Hutchinson’s bill is so timely and so important. Increasing our infrastructure spending is good for our economy, and it’s essential to our public safety. Nearly 147,000 of the 605,000 bridges in this country are failing, and about 18 percent of the more than 945,000 inspected miles of our roadways are in unacceptably poor condition, contributing to accidents and congestion. Regional rail trains in older U.S. cities travel across trestles built in the early 20th century. Funds to provide even that basic service cannot be found in newer cities.

The way to solve these and other challenges, as Kerry and Hutchinson propose, is to increase federal financing for rebuilding America’s public assets. Their proposed infrastructure bank will lend money for large-scale infrastructure projects that will be paid back over time by tolls or local dedicated taxes. Under this model, the federal government would spur investment by putting in the first dollars and attracting private partners. Every federal dollar loaned to a project will be matched by as many as six private dollars.

Americans are watching the Japanese clean up. Soon, we’ll be watching them rebuild. That’s because their government understands the importance of making significant infrastructure investments that meet their daily needs—as well as urgent needs in difficult times.

Congress should quickly take up and move Sens. Kerry and Hutchinson’s infrastructure bank legislation so we too might begin to rebuild our infrastructure. We need to be able to depend on it in times of calm and times of turmoil.

Donna Cooper is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.