Rob Horowitz: WA Bridge Collapse A Wake-Up Call For Rhode Island

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


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Last week’s collapse of a bridge that was part of a major Western interstate highway is another stark reminder of the urgent need to maintain and upgrade our nation’s infrastructure. Fortunately, in this case---despite the fact two cars ended up in the river-- only minor injuries were incurred. But unless we stop making infrastructure spending another casualty of rigid ideology, this incident will be marked as a preview of even worse coming attractions.

The 2013 American Society of Civil Engineer’s Infrastructure Report Card gives the United States a D+ for the current state of its infrastructure, estimating that it would take $3.6 trillion between now and 2020 to do all the needed upgrades. In Rhode Island, more than half of the bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete and 7-in-10 roads are in poor or mediocre condition, according to the Report Card.

Along with unacceptable safety risks, the failure to act in this area is jeopardizing American economic competitiveness. The nation’s infrastructure has dropped from 1st to 15th in economic competitiveness, according to the World Economic Forum. The United States has the world’s worst air traffic congestion and little or no high speed rail. No longer are any of the top ten ports in the world located here, while six of them are now located in China.

In a tough competitive global economy, the ability to rapidly move goods, services and people is an essential component of competitiveness. This requires repairing existing infrastructure as well as making the investments needed to modernize it.

These kinds of investments used to easily gain wide bi-partisan support and routinely pass the Congress. Today, however, the Congressional Republican leadership-- more often than not--lumps in opposition to infrastructure spending with the rest of their blanket opposition to any increases in discretionary domestic spending—refusing to exempt these essential investments from their general criticism of a "too expansive and intrusive federal government."

The recent introduction of The Partnership to Build America Act will give Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and his leadership team an opportunity to reconsider their short-sighted and politically risky opposition. In the week since it has been introduced, this proposal to create a $50 billion American Infrastructure Fund in order to leverage a total of $750 billion in infrastructure spending at the state and local level has already attracted 13 Republican co-sponsors. Its sponsor John Delaney (D-MD) said, “We can’t compete in the global economy of the 21st century without a significant investment in our infrastructure. At no cost to the taxpayer, this legislation will finance a massive investment in U. S. infrastructure, get Americans back to work now, and position our businesses to grow for decades to come.”

While this proposal is similar in many ways to other recent proposals which also use public funds as seed money to attract private dollars, such as President Obama’s National Infrastructure Bank initiative, its innovative funding mechanism may attract more Republican support and give it a better chance of gaining traction. A financially-savvy former CEO, Delaney has crafted a proposal that does not rely on any new appropriations and provides strong incentives for corporations to participate through a tax break given on funds they are holding overseas.

More specifically, the new American Infrastructure Fund will be funded by the sale of 50-year bonds that are not guaranteed by the Federal government and pay a 1% interest rate. U.S. corporations buying these bonds will be allowed to “repatriate a certain dollar amount – determined by auction - in overseas earnings tax-free for every $1 they invest in the bonds.” In addition, at least 25% of the projects financed by the Fund must be public-private partnerships.

Let’s hope Representative Delaney’s innovative and common sense proposal breaks the partisan gridlock and the bi-partisan tradition of making needed infrastructure investments is restored. It is important to act now before it is too late.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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