WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 22, 2019) — More than half a century ago, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower and a Democratic-majority Congress empowered millions of Americans to build an interstate highway system that became the envy of the world. Back then, our nation understood that investment in infrastructure was crucial to creating a better future.
The interstate highway system was such a success that, 60 years later, both parties still fight over who gets credit for it.
Today, our leaders often talk about big ideas but rarely summon the political courage to accomplish them. As a result, our roads, bridges, airports, railways and utilities are outdated and in need of urgent repairs. In 2014, our clogged roads cost $160 billion in lost productivity and wasted fuel. Our packed airports cost nearly $36 billion a year from air travel complications, and our crumbling infrastructure has cost American lives. It should not take another tragedy to change that.
As the heads of the nation’s leading business and labor organizations, we don’t always see eye to eye on things, but on this, we are in lockstep: Rebuilding and modernizing our nation’s crumbling infrastructure will benefit every business, every worker and every family in the United States. It will make every community safer, more resilient, healthy and secure. It will create good jobs, boost productivity, sharpen our nation’s competitive edge and ensure our current and future economic success.
It is frustrating that, despite widespread calls to act, the only response from Washington has been lip service. Talking alone does not create a single job or repair a single road. We need action.
Infrastructure is not a partisan issue. It is an American priority. Our nation’s leaders must find common cause — as we have — and once again make America a global leader on infrastructure.
For every dollar invested in public infrastructure, our country gets $3 in economic return. A $2 trillion investment, as President Trump and congressional leaders have agreed upon in principle, would produce reliable transit systems, sound roads and bridges, and safe drinking water.
We are aware that paying for this will be a challenge. It is important to consider all funding sources, including the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised at the federal level since 1993. An increase of 25 cents per gallon over five years would generate $394 billion and save Americans an average of $1,600 a year due to decreased car-repair costs and lower fuel costs, thanks to less time spent in traffic. In addition, raising the gas tax would put millions of men and women to work rebuilding our nation’s deteriorating roads and bridges.
But a gas tax alone cannot cover the $2 trillion bill. It is going to take a creative mix of federal, state, local and private resources to make the investment we need. Every long-term funding option, from payment structures to federally backed loans, should be explored. However, we agree that a 21st-century infrastructure is impossible without a major public investment.
We are also aware that neither party is perhaps as keen to take this step as it sounds on the stump. But according to a poll released in April, the public is tired of waiting. Seventy-nine percent of the voters polled believe Washington must act and invest in federal infrastructure, and in 2018, 79 percent of 346 state and local ballot measures aimed at infrastructure investment were approved.
The infrastructure investments we make today will determine the kind of country we will be decades from now. Our leaders in Washington have a historic opportunity to rebuild and modernize a nation desperately in need of repair. Labor and business are ready to unleash an unmatched network of leaders and members to support the passage of long-overdue legislation. But we can’t do it alone. The time for delay is over. Let’s build our future, and let’s start today.
Thomas J. Donohoe is president and chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO. This opinion column first appeared in the Washington Post.