New Infrastructure Plan Needed
The American Society of Civil Engineers just put out its latest infrastructure “report card” — a grading of the state of our bridges, roads, rail and water ways, airports, broadband connectivity, and shared spaces like parks and public school buildings. By its measurement, the country inched up from a D+ in 2017 to a C- in 2021.
For one of the wealthiest nations on earth, it’s fair to call that grade disappointing.
To be fair, there’s a lot of work happening in West Virginia, and plenty of attention is paid to the maintenance and improvement of infrastructure by our elected officials. We’ve already increased the fuel tax here to pay for road work, and the Roads for Prosperity program is putting a few billion dollars toward capital improvement projects, which is nothing to sneeze at. Joe Manchin has been calling for expanded broadband internet access for years, for example, and Shelley Moore Capito has done plenty of work on federal infrastructure funding in Washington.
But even the maintenance backlog in a state as small as ours hints at the problems we face as a nation. More than 20 percent of our more than 7,000 bridges here were labeled structurally deficient as of 2019. More than 30 percent of our roads are in poor shape, according to Federal Highway Administration data.
Whether it’s a reliable road or a reliable internet connection, we’re talking about the literal underpinnings of the 21st century economy. And until we address these shortcomings, West Virginia isn’t going to realize the kind of widespread economic development we’ve talked about here for decades. Still, we’re in luck: We’ve got a president who is about to spend a lot of his political energy to make this kind of federal development program a reality.
We need to spend big on infrastructure, and we must spread the money around while we do it to maximize the domestic impact of all this spending. That’s what the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” proposal boils down to: A reliable investment plan that will use Buy America rules to put American manufacturers to work repairing existing infrastructure, like all those rickety bridges and damaged roads; and the infrastructure the future economy is already demanding, like the hundreds of miles of broadband cable we’ve yet to lay down in this state. And then there’s the thousands of electric charging stations across the country that any realistic shift to electric vehicles will require. Those will be needed all over West Virginia, too, someday.
The Biden proposal is going to be big enough to make funding available for both the immediate and long-term needs. And its Buy America rules will mean not only jobs to construct new infrastructure and repair existing installations, but jobs to manufacture the physical material those projects require, like iron, steel, and cement. These types of jobs are often unionized and typically pay a good wage to workers with less than a four-year degree – and they’re exactly the type that America needs more of right now.
Of course, Build Back Better is far more than a jobs and maintenance program to some.
There’s a reason the national Chamber of Commerce is running ads in support of an infrastructure bill like this: Businesses will ultimately benefit from more efficient logistics that modern infrastructure will provide for them. Suffice to say, it’ll keep their costs down.
If we continue to ignore infrastructure funding gaps, though, it won’t be businesses that will eat those costs. The Civil Engineers estimate the average American household will be paying an extra $3,300 per year by 2039 because an aging electric grid and drinking water system make our utilities less reliable, and dilapidated roads and airports make travel times increase.
Because it’s going to affect all of us, getting a comprehensive, Buy America infrastructure bill passed should be of interest to our entire federal Congressional delegation. So when comes up for a vote, I hope support for it isn’t another party line exercise.
There are no red bridges or blue highways in America, but there are plenty of dilapidated examples of both — and there are too many of them in West Virginia. So we should spend the money to fix them, and put Americans to work while we doing.