This month, I joined the chairman of the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many other leaders to call on our nation to act now on a pressing need—bringing our infrastructure into the 21st century.
Dozens of organizations from business, labor and the infrastructure community held scores of events around the country during Infrastructure Week to raise awareness about the infrastructure challenges we face. Our roads, bridges, waterways, harbors, ports, airports, transit, rail, energy grid, pipelines, Internet and telecommunication, sewers, and drinking water system are all aging and falling further into disrepair.
Repairing and modernizing our infrastructure has been and continues to be a top priority for the AFL-CIO and our affiliated unions. Infrastructure Week provided an opportunity for new voices and ideas to be heard and the opportunity to reach new audiences.
The facts and choices are clear. We have been neglecting and underfunding our infrastructure for decades. Most notably, the quadrennial report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) documented the $3.6 trillion needed just to bring our current infrastructure systems into a state of good repair.
That’s a big number, but what does it mean?
In good repair, our nation’s infrastructure provides the foundation that creates good jobs, grows the economy, keeps us globally competitive and enhances our citizens’ quality of life. When goods and services can’t be delivered in a timely and efficient manner, or energy can’t reach its destination, or commuters can’t get to work on time, we all pay the price.
Previous generations built an American infrastructure that was the envy of the world. Since then, we’ve been coasting on the wise investments made decades ago. Now it’s our turn to step up and rebuild that foundation so future generations can have the same opportunities we had.
The path forward is not easy or pain free. There are no silver bullets, and ignoring our problems will not make them go away. Yet, while legislators wrestle with responsibly funding the necessary investments, the cost of inaction continues to rise.
For example, the poor condition of our roads costs the average driver 38 hours of wasted time, $818 in wasted fuel and $344 in auto repairs. This amounts to more than $120 billion lost or wasted each year. This inaction is choking our economy, and the adverse impacts only will worsen over time. We can do better.
I’ve seen firsthand what some of our global competitors, such as China and Japan, are doing. They are investing heavily in the latest infrastructure systems, technologies and efficiencies, and they’re doing so on a large scale. The newly widened Panama Canal allows supersized ships to move goods more cheaply from our shores to locations around the world, but many of our ports can’t handle these ships, making our exports more expensive.
We have new forms of energy here in the United States that in too many instances can’t be effectively moved or transmitted to market. Our aviation sector is for the most part still operating with outdated technologies, leading to flight delays, inefficiencies and unnecessary congestion in our skies.
Indeed, government budgets are tight. But like household budgets, not making needed investments, such as not fixing a leaky roof, will not save you any money in the long run. Investments in infrastructure are not like splurging on a steak dinner with a hamburger budget. These types of investments actually save money and reap dividends well into the future.
We have choices to make. We can continue to watch our global rank steadily fall as we become less competitive, less attractive for investment, less productive, with fewer good jobs, longer commute times and more wasted fuel. Or we can invest wisely and build reliable, efficient, resilient and modern infrastructure systems that fuel a strong and thriving economy, which creates good jobs, reduces unemployment, raises wages and expands the middle class.
Make no mistake, our vision is to make America the best it can be, and that requires significant investment in our infrastructure. The fact that the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, which seldom agree on much, can come together on this issue should speak volumes to those in Congress who are jeopardizing our economic future by refusing to act responsibly.
Congress needs to do its job—so business and workers can do ours.
Richard Trumka is president of the 12.5 million-member American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest organization of labor unions in the country. An outspoken advocate for social and economic justice, Trumka is the nation’s clearest voice on the critical need to raise workers’ wages in this slow and painful economic recovery. He heads the labor movement’s efforts to create an economy based on broadly shared prosperity and to hold government and employers accountable to working families.