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Here’s how the US should choose which infrastructure projects to start

  • More than two-thirds of Americans want the government to start investing in infrastructure.
  • The debate over what an infrastructure modernization package should look like is heating up in Washington.
  • There are three key priorities the U.S. should use in choosing which infrastructure projects to start.
Traffic moves over the Hudson River and across the George Washington Bridge between New York City (R), and in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
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Traffic moves over the Hudson River and across the George Washington Bridge between New York City (R), and in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

American infrastructure was once the envy of the world. But for decades now it has been left to age and decay, hampering our competitiveness and reducing safety, productivity, and efficiency for consumers and businesses alike. Today, the nation that marshalled the efforts of the public and private sectors to build the Transcontinental Railroad in the 19th century and the Interstate Highway in the 20th century must again rally around the national priority of infrastructure investment. We must modernize the physical platform of our economy for the 21st century—and this year, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do it.

After years of talking about failing infrastructure, we finally have the bipartisan buy-in, political will, and public support to do something about it. The president has pledged to act on this priority—and the public supports it. According to a new U.S. Chamber poll, fully 70 percent of Americans want the federal government to invest in infrastructure. By similar margins, the poll showed that Americans understand that infrastructure investment will grow the economy, help businesses, and create jobs.

There's a clear consensus: It's time to build.

That was the driving message of Infrastructure Week, an annual series of events dedicated to improving our crumbling system that took place this week. The U.S. Chamber, which helped found I-Week 5 years ago, kicked off the week's activities at our headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Monday, hosting high-profile leaders including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Some 100 other events took place around the country. We hope this nationwide week of education and advocacy has helped inform the debate and drive momentum for action this year.

Indeed, the debate over what an infrastructure modernization package should look like is now heating up in Washington. The Chamber is ready to work closely with Congress and the White House to advance an ambitious plan, and we're going to be advocating for three core priorities for a final infrastructure package.

First, projects should be selected and funded based on their potential to support long-term economic growth—and prioritized based on what helps the entire country, not what serves parochial interests. This means we must build or rebuild highways and bridges, airports and seaports, rail lines and water ways, pipelines and power grids, and a broadband network that will allow rural America to connect to the rest of the nation digitally as well as physically.

The second priority is creating a broad toolkit of public and private financing. Funding and financing should be tailored to each specific project and, where possible, utilize funds from existing federal programs. It will also be necessary to find a long-term sustainable funding source, particularly for federal highway and transit projects. One idea is a modest increase to the federal gas tax, which President Trump recently expressed an openness to considering.

The third priority is to adopt needed reforms to ensure the right projects get done in a timely, transparent, and cost-effective manner. We need accountability and performance requirements for projects. Permitting must be fast and the procurement process needs to be up-to-date. This is crucial to attracting investment and ensuring the government gets the most bang for its buck. We also need to equip our infrastructure now for new technologies, such as autonomous vehicles.

If an infrastructure bill is built around these priorities, we believe it will garner the support needed to move through Congress—and it will achieve the goal of building a modern, efficient system to support our 21st century economy. Achieving this won't happen quickly or easily. But kicking the can down the road won't make the problem go away. And the longer we wait, the harder the decisions will be and the more the projects will cost.

Our leaders and the public understand what's at stake—so let's use this rare moment of consensus to get the job done.

Commentary by Thomas J. Donohue, who has been the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce since 1997. Before that, he was president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations for 13 years.

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Watch: Donohue says infrastructure will take time & money