It costs more to build a bridge, or tunnel or dam here in the U.S. that anywhere else in the Western world thanks in no small part to onerous environmental regulations, redundant authorities and rising labor costs – also impacted by government overreach.
The eyes of the world were watching on Sunday as the biggest single event in sports flickered across millions of television screens across the globe. Then the lights went out. Naturally and immediately most people thought “What an embarrassment.” There has been some misdirected and rather fatuous blame over the incident directed at New Orleans, with some commentators going as far as to say that the power outage should knock The Big Easy out of the running for future Super Bowls. That is of course, nonsense. Who is to blame is still unknown and frankly irrelevant.
New Orleans has been through a lot in the last decade, and for those who care to remember Katrina, it’s a miracle the city has rebounded as well as it has, continuing to host the Super Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras and other major events.
What happened on Sunday night isn’t about New Orleans. It speaks more to the pressing challenge of ensuring our infrastructure is capable of enabling America to be competitive in a global economy. Infrastructure facilitates the smooth, efficient and profitable maintenance of commerce. It helps ensure public safety, and both human and environmental health.
It’s all around us, from our electrical grid to telecommunications to water and sewage systems. Our roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, dams, ports, trains and mass transportation systems also work together to ensure that in this vast land of more than 300 million people we can produce more and have a better quality of life. The United States once led the way in the development or advancement of all the elements of modern infrastructure. Not since ancient Rome had a civilization have such an impact on the way the world works.
Infrastructure projects have also long been a major catalyst for jobs, particularly for immigrant workers and the middle class. The massive projects were once a route into the middle class for countless millions in the 19th and 20th centuries and made the American Dream possible. And yes, they were largely funded by the government with tax dollars.
That time is unfortunately long gone, unless a new model for funding projects is adopted in this country. It costs more to build a bridge, or tunnel or dam here in the U.S. that anywhere else in the Western world thanks in no small part to onerous environmental regulations, redundant authorities and rising labor costs – also impacted by government overreach. You can all but forget about building a power plant.
As a result, the state of our national infrastructure is today falling behind that of other nations. Just take a look at Europe’s light rail system, the Middle East’s airports, and Asia’s bridges. Despite the fact that we continue to invest tax dollars by the billion, it is clear the old funding model isn’t working. Spend ten minutes at Newark or JFK airports. That’s real cause for embarrassment.
In 2011, the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 15th in the category of infrastructure, behind the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, the UK, and Canada. It is estimated that our nation’s critical needs for maintaining and upgrading our various systems and arteries will cost more than $2.2 trillion, but we’ve seen a 50% decline in U.S. infrastructure investment as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product since 1960. While the Obama Administration promised both jobs and infrastructure improvements with its colossal, trillion-dollar stimulus program, only roughly $70 billion went to critical projects.
Even Michael Mandel of the Progressive Policy Institute lamented last year that Obama’s allocation of stimulus funds did little to help solve the problem because too much money was spent elsewhere.
The old, taxpayer financing model clearly needs to give way to far more aggressive private sector investment model.
Going back to New Orleans for a moment, consider that after Katrina, Entergy was given hundreds of millions in tax dollars and still increased consumer energy bills as much as 10%, only to provide patches to an aging electrical grid. Taxpayers cannot afford to foot the bill for these massive projects and government is increasingly proving to be more of an impediment to addressing the challenge.
Subsidizing energy companies and throwing money at states often leads to waste, delays and a Band-Aid approach. It will not bring the United States into the 21st century and keep it prosperous in the face of global competition. A report last year from the American Society of Civil Engineers calculated that deteriorating roads will cost U.S. businesses $240 billion over the next ten years in lost growth potential. That is to say nothing about the negative impact of our inadequate airports, broadband and electrical grid on economic growth.
Fiscal conservatives need to clearly articulate their understanding of the importance of renewing our infrastructure as a vehicle for creating jobs and improving the economy. They also need to be firm that innovative private sector solutions like Public Private Partnerships and other fully private sector-based investments must be advanced to drastically reduce the exposure of particularly middle income Americans from the high costs of these projects. Conservatives also must champion streamlining the regulatory approvals process to make projects more economically viable for private investment.
PPPs are not a panacea. They need to be just the beginning of a new era where private equity and other investment capital can repair the arteries that carry America’s essential services, people and products. That will ultimately bring costs down, reduce construction times, create more jobs and drive more innovation. Just ask the developers of the massive new Louisiana International Gulf Transfer Terminal Regional Center outside in the port of New Orleans – a tremendous advancement for U.S. shipping operations, funded almost entirely by private dollars.
This isn’t about Republicans and Democrats. The problem is bigger than 34 minutes of darkness during the Super Bowl. It’s about American competitiveness and ending the vicious cycle of tax, borrow, and delay that is preventing progress. It is clear this challenge is more than government and the taxpayer can handle, but the great American enterprise system –if allowed to work- has a shot to finally bring us into the 21st century.