Opinion

Opinion: This Is Not a Drill. It’s Actually Infrastructure Week

Congress and Trump are spinning their wheels. But why should all our hopes hang on Washington?

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao delivers remarks during last year’s Infrastructure Week kickoff event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Chao pointed to the repair of the I-85 Atlanta highway bridge, which collapsed after a fire, as an example of a successful public-private project. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)

Starting today, it’s officially Infrastructure Week — as in the annual bipartisan event, not a themed White House push. Remember last year, when optimism was high that Congress and President Donald Trump would soon begin work on a comprehensive infrastructure plan? This year, not so much. The lamentations have already begun: “There’s always next year.”

At forums from coast to coast this week, we’ll hear about the dismal state of our nation’s infrastructure. From the lives lost when bridges fail, to the mounting number of potholes and leaky pipes going unrepaired, the decline of our infrastructure harms Americans every single day.

The American Society of Civil Engineers says ignoring the “infrastructure gap” — or the gap between the current investment and the growing list of needs — will cost the average American household about $110,000 over the next quarter-century. By 2025, the economy could lose upwards of $4 trillion in GDP and 2.5 million jobs. The consequences of inaction are bleak.

But perhaps all is not lost. We do have two federal infrastructure proposals on the table. The president’s long-awaited blueprint, released in February, calls for $200 billion in federal funds, intended to leverage $1.3 trillion from states, cities and the private sector. Senate Democrats, in contrast, seek to provide $1 trillion in new federal funding.

While both these plans have faults and critics, they have enough in common that a bipartisan bill could be fashioned by taking the best ideas of each. Meanwhile, House and Senate committee staff are quietly negotiating the Water Resources Development Act, and legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration is taking off. It’s not all we had hoped for, but it’s a start.

And why should all our hopes hang on Washington, where the idea of an “infrastructure week” has become something of a running joke? If federal action underwhelms, we should turn our eyes to the states, recognizing that Washington can’t solve these problems entirely on its own.

Business depends on a healthy economy, and a healthy economy requires modern, resilient infrastructure. We need those private businesses to help create that infrastructure. But first we must create an environment that welcomes private capital, instead of pushing it away. To a large degree, that begins in the states.

Public-private partnerships, or P3s, have seen limited use in the United States, unlike in Canada and Australia, where they are far more common. In a P3, the private partner brings technical expertise, innovation and risk management experience to help control costs, improve efficiency and deliver value for the public. A private partner may also bring financing to the table, helping advance projects that may otherwise have to wait years for public funds.

The Michigan Department of Transportation is using such a partnership to replace 15,000 freeway lights in the Detroit area, addressing longstanding safety and visibility concerns more quickly than the department could on its own. Swapping out old lights for energy-efficient LED bulbs is expected to save the department $13 million over 15 years.

In Pennsylvania, the state is partnering with a private consortium to rebuild 558 small bridges, mostly in rural areas, at a significant cost savings. A private partner helped the city of Seattle meet environmental regulations for water treatment using innovative design and technology at the city’s Tolt Water Treatment Facility.

Even if Congress is unlikely to act this year, there is much state and local governments can do to address their infrastructure needs by encouraging private sector partnerships. But there’s a roadblock: 17 states do not yet allow any public-private partnerships, and others allow them only in limited cases.

These states can and should change those rules. States can also establish offices to connect willing private investors with worthy projects in need of funding.

Another barrier to attracting private finance is the lack of information about what assets cities and states own, the condition of those assets, and the price of maintaining or replacing them. Every level of government should conduct an inventory of what it owns, not only to attract private investors but also to develop a better system for analyzing the public costs and benefits of each potential infrastructure project.

Crucially, none of these steps requires Congress to act. State legislatures can take them up right now.

America’s economic future rests not only on the innovation and hard work of its people, but also on the strength of its infrastructure. That economic imperative means Congress will ultimately have to act, but this National Infrastructure Week, rather than simply bemoan continued federal inaction, we should recognize all that states and cities can do to keep America moving forward.

Michele Nellenbach is director of strategic initiatives at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Senate Environment and Public Works Committee staff member.

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