THE BLOG
03/26/2013 05:14 pm ET Updated May 26, 2013

American Infrastructure on the Brink: Only a New Deal Can Save It

The familiar rattle of the A train, the dull roar of traffic below your apartment window, the crackle of a jet on takeoff somewhere above -- let the city's manic, syncopated pulse reverberate inside your skull. Infrastructure keeps the city alive -- if people are the lifeblood of the city, then its roads, rails, and tunnels are its vital arteries. Our cities are on life support. Rust accumulates like a plaque, corroding steel columns, beams, and bolts. Age has not been kind to America's infrastructure and today we have arrived at a critical impasse. According to a new report card released on Tuesday by the American Society of Civil Engineers, America's networks scored a dismal D+. One in every nine bridges in the United States has been deemed structurally deficient by the engineering group. Without bold action on the part of our government, we risk a collective catastrophe.

President Barack Obama has been toying with such action for the entirety of his first term, recently doubling down on his position during the State of the Union Address when he proclaimed that America needs to "fix it first." But where does this lofty rhetoric leave our society? A Republican Congress and infinite layers of state and local bureaucracy stands firmly in the path of any real infrastructure reform; not to mention the problem of finding money to pay for capital-intensive projects like rebuilding bridges or initiating a high speed rail system. The only way to deliver the renaissance that American infrastructure networks so desperately need is direct action from the executive branch. While President Obama will still need Congress' support, it will be much easier with a plan that will be executed under direct federal supervision that will, in turn, provide predictable, quantifiable benefits.

It's time for a "New Deal" for American infrastructure. Such direct intervention will provide Americans with much more than new highways and bridges -- it will create family-sustaining construction jobs en masse and set into motion a multiplier effect that will ripple across the economy as a whole. Countries like China have seen massive investments in modern infrastructure (including the world's longest high speed rail line); the United States is falling behind. A centrally administered program would give America a fighting chance to keep up with Asian and European markets -- without such an investment, America becomes less attractive for business and will suffer dire economic consequences. To remain competitive American networks need to be world-class. This means city centers in regions like the Northeast Corridor need to connected by true high speed rail and the electricity should stay on, even in the face of an event like Hurricane Sandy. This is what makes a nation modern.

In the face of global climate change, a New Deal provides a critical opportunity for green infrastructure. While conducting repairs, our roads and sidewalks can be improved to help resist the damaging effects of increasingly severe storms. Impermeable surfaces can be replaced with cutting edge technology that allows for porous asphalt and concrete, giving destructive runoff water a path into the ground and away from homes and businesses. Bio-swales can also be implemented to contain runoff water and provide an environment for oxygen-replenishing plants to grow. Green roofs can be used to mitigate an ever-worsening urban heat island effect. These measures are incredibly simple, but would likely never be brought into the mainstream without the extra push provided by government intervention.

This is government, but it is not the "big government" that sends Rush Limbaugh cowering under the nearest sofa. Perhaps the largest beneficiary of a New Deal would be private industry. Not only would contractors see a boon to business, but other companies and investors could also stand to gain from a program to rebuild and modernize American infrastructure. In order to finance what could become a prohibitively expensive plan, the government needs to consider increased use of public-private partnerships. Under such a scheme, government agencies could do the basic planning, laying the groundwork for construction, but a private investment or even construction firm would front the money for construction and maintenance in return for rights to collect user-fees (usually tolls) from the project. This would be beneficial for the overall economy by strengthening firms, but also to the public good because private industry is typically much more efficient in allocating expenses. Firms would also likely expedite the completion of any projects so they can begin collecting a return on their investment as soon as possible. This is government working for the private sector and the private sector working for the collective good.

The time for the kind decisive action needed to reverse our nation's downward economic trajectory is now - America's infrastructure cannot wait. It is time to go beyond simple repairs and expand, modernize our vital networks. With looming deficits and draconian austerity rhetoric dominating the halls of Congress, it may seem like a far-fetched idea to pour money into capital projects. Without infrastructure that is on par with our European and Asian counterparts, America cannot hope to compete economically. Improvements like high speed rail and reliable electricity can once again show investors that America is, indeed, "open for business." Construction can stimulate job growth and new public-private partnerships can foster new private sector investment. The truth is that while it may seem a bold -- even grandiose -- proposal, a New Deal for American infrastructure is actually a commonsense measure towards an economic revival. America's cities need not be checked into the hospice ward -- their best days can still lie ahead. We can rebuild and reimagine American infrastructure; all that we need is for our leaders to have the courage to take bold action.

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