10/25/2013 05:21 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Smart Investments Today Will Prepare West Virginia's Infrastructure for the Future

Although the deal to end the shutdown and restore our borrowing authority bought a few months to solve the latest fiscal crisis, it reflects a larger problem in Congress. There is an unwillingness among some to put politics aside so we can have an honest conversation about the resources required to meet the country's significant challenges ahead. And fixing the nation's crumbling transportation system is one of our biggest challenges.

The U.S. was once a global leader in building and maintaining our infrastructure, but that's no longer the case. After decades of under-investment in our roads, airports and air traffic control systems, rails, and ports, we have fallen far behind -- and it's staring us in the face, including right here in West Virginia.

Currently, more than 950 bridges around the state have been deemed "structurally deficient," meaning that they need significant repairs or replacement. Nearly half of our major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, which costs drivers $372 million a year in car repairs and operating costs. Over the next 20 years, it is expected that our water and waste infrastructure will need millions of dollars in funding just to maintain current levels of service. On top of all this, nearly 400 of our dams are considered "high hazard." Unfortunately, these numbers will only get worse if we fail to change the way we invest in our nation's infrastructure.

However, we know that when we make smart, strategic investments in our infrastructure it can pay off in big ways. For decades, the Bluestone Dam in Hinton has protected more than 175,000 people living along southern West Virginia's rivers, which are at risk of flooding every time there is severe weather. Annually, the Dam provides approximately $70 million in flood protection savings, and over its 60-year lifespan has saved nearly $5 billion. In recent years, I made sure the Dam got the funds necessary to pay for critical maintenance and upgrades so that we wouldn't have to pay far more for unplanned repairs or accidents. Proactively investing in the Bluestone Dam and other at-risk infrastructure now means we won't have to pay for our shortcomings in the future.

As we learned during the shutdown, the federal government plays a critical role in developing and maintaining our transportation infrastructure. When a truck and train accident in Randolph County killed one person and injured several others earlier this month, we were told that investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were furloughed because of the shutdown, and therefore couldn't get to the scene of the accident immediately to determine its cause. This was very frustrating to me. West Virginians deserve better than that.

The upcoming budget discussions give us the opportunity to address our infrastructure problems head-on, but every concept and idea must be on the table. I've already put forth a proposal for consideration that would boost private-public funding investments because I believe this is a practical way to bring billions in private funds off the sidelines and put it to work.

While no solution is perfect, we have to find a practical and sustainable path forward. Congress, the administration and the stakeholder community all must be willing to engage in an honest conversation in the coming weeks about how to best increase investments in our nation's future. The decisions we make now -- or those we don't make -- will have a lasting impact on West Virginia and our nation.