On the eve of the State of the Union address, The New York Times’ David Brooks challenged President Obama to lay out a “precise vision of what a thriving America is going to look like in the 21st Century.” On Tuesday, the President filled in that sketch and tossed back a challenge to Congress and the American people to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Unpacking that statement alone would provide enough fodder for multiple blog posts, so today I’m going to focus on the President’s call to upgrade America’s infrastructure – one of MPC’s core issues.
As President Obama noted, America’s infrastructure used to be the best in the world. However, in their 2009 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the nation's critical infrastructure systems a "D."
It’s an embarrassing grade; any parent would wince if their child came home with a close-to-failing report card. What’s worse is that it was computed by taking the average of 15 categories of infrastructure, from aviation and rail to energy and wastewater systems. The highest grade in all of these categories was a C+. If we want to raise our grades – and compete with China and its rapidly developing high-speed rail system, and India, which is building entire communities from scratch – ASCE figures we’ll need a five-year investment of $2.2 trillion.
It’s a daunting prospect, made even more challenging because infrastructure has long been a sleeper issue. As a nation, we’ve grown accustomed to – and, ultimately, neglectful of – our robust infrastructure network, even though we’ve only enjoyed such amenities as highway and transit systems, wastewater treatment, and aviation for roughly a century. So engrained have these systems become in our daily lives that we take them for granted: Are you one of those whose eyes glaze over when the talk turns to streets and sidewalks, sewers and dams, energy and information technology?
Yet this is the stuff that makes our lives and livelihoods possible. Infrastructure delivers vital resources, keeps us safe from disease, gets us where we need and want to go, and connects us to knowledge, commerce, and recreation. Without it, we would still be a developing nation. When it fails – as it did in a high-profile way earlier this week, when a water main break closed the Beltway in Washington, D.C. – we feel it.
What’s more, as President Obama reminded us, infrastructure is a catalyst for new jobs – not only for the people who build the roads, rails, dams and bridges, but the jobs in a new office park built near an interchange or at a new business district that springs up near a transit stop.
Infrastructure is instrumental, so it was incredibly encouraging to hear the President give it its due. He proposed “redoubling our efforts” to repair, modernize and expand our infrastructure – not only through new public resources, but also by attracting private investments, and by making smarter decisions about where we invest. We must “pick projects based on what’s good for the American economy, not politicians,” he said.
It’s clear the President believes we can and must improve our infrastructure, noting in his address that we are the nation that built the Transcontinental Railroad, provided electricity to rural communities in Appalachia, and constructed the national highway system.
MPC is with him. Together with our partners in Transportation for America-Illinois, as well as with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and regional transportation providers, we are advocating for Congress to pass a new federal surface transportation package in 2011, one that adopts smarter spending of tax dollars driven by broad goals that address economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability and social equity. And through research, policy advocacy, and outreach – including our bi-weekly e-newsletter Talking Transit – MPC is pursuing innovative ways to improve our existing infrastructure systems, to meet growing demand and reduce the need for costly new investments. From pedestrian and bike improvements to innovative transit alternatives such as bus rapid transit to green infrastructure that helps us conserve water at lower costs, we are exploring ways to get the most bang for our buck on our national, state and regional infrastructure investments.
And, in the wake of Wednesday’s shocking news that the Illinois appellate court has struck down the state’s capital construction program and all of its funding sources, we will redouble our efforts to position our region and state for federal transportation investment. While the decision is certainly a huge blow to existing infrastructure maintenance and expansion plans across the state, including in metropolitan Chicago, if it’s back to the drawing board on crafting a new capital program, let’s seize the opportunity to develop statewide transportation investment goals and criteria for selecting projects, and identify new sources of innovative financing, including public-private partnerships.
Make your voice heard on increased federal funding for our infrastructure system: Share your comments on this post, and tell Congress what you want to see in a transportation bill by visiting the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials’ Facebook and YouTube sites. If social media isn’t your thing, contact our own Peter Skosey, who is MPC’s link to the Bipartisan Policy Center, Transportation for America and other partners to ensure metropolitan Chicago’s regional growth is supported through this federal legislation: email@example.com.