Stephen Sandherr: Trump and Dems should fix infrastructure and stop partisan bickering

Watching the collapse of Wednesday’s planned infrastructure meeting between President Trump and Democratic congressional leaders, it’s easy to understand why so many voters are frustrated with Washington. Once again, we see our national leaders engaging in partisan bickering instead of addressing our nation’s real and pressing problems.

The breakdown of the infrastructure meeting is both bad policy and bad politics. In terms of policy, our aging and overburdened infrastructure is holding our economy back and hurting all Americans. And in terms of politics, voters reward politicians who fix infrastructure and punish those who do not.

Emerging from a meeting with the president at the White House April 30, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced that President Trump had agreed to support $2 trillion in badly needed infrastructure spending.

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In a written statement following the meeting last month, the White House called the meeting "excellent and productive" but didn’t mention an agreement on a dollar figure.

The meeting Wednesday with Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., other top Democrats and the president was supposed to follow up on the April 30 meeting to discuss details of the infrastructure plan, including how to pay for the $2 trillion price tag.

Unfortunately, the follow-up meeting lasted only a few minutes before it blew up. President Trump said he could not work with Democrats until they ended congressional investigations of him and walked out before any discussion of what to do about infrastructure.

“I walked into the room and I told Senator Schumer, and Speaker Pelosi: ‘I want to do infrastructure. I want to do it more than you want to do it. I’d be really good at that, that’s what I do. But you know what? You can’t do it under these circumstances. So get these phony investigations over with,’” the president told reporters minutes later.

Traffic congestion has gotten so bad that the average motorist now spends 42 hours stuck in traffic and $1,400 in wasted gasoline each year.

I’m not going to weigh in on the dispute between Democrats and the president on congressional investigations. But their dispute has nothing to do with our nation’s desperate need for greater investment in our infrastructure, and should not prevent our government from addressing what should be a top national priority.

Our infrastructure needs are significant and severe. The World Economic Forum ranked America’s infrastructure No. 1 in the world in 2005. Today we have fallen to No. 9.

Nearly half of our nation’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition and driving on them cost the average driver $599 a year in extra vehicle operating and repair costs.

Traffic congestion has gotten so bad that the average motorist now spends 42 hours stuck in traffic and $1,400 in wasted gasoline each year.

There are nearly 55,000 structurally deficient bridges across the U.S.

It’s not just our transportation network that is in disrepair. It’s also our water systems and our airports.

There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks each year and when it happens in your neighborhood you realize how inconvenient it is to be without a reliable source of clean water.

Our aviation system continues to be reliant on a ground-based radar navigation system dating back to World War II. And our airports are facing nearly $100 billion in capital development needs over the next five years – an increase of 32 percent from just 2015.

It’s no wonder that America’s infrastructure has received a grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. This is one reason that virtually the entire business community, including the Associated General Contractors of America (where I serve as CEO), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers have made securing needed new infrastructure funding one of our top priorities.

Voters also understand that our infrastructure must be improved and they continue to reward elected officials who work to fix it and punish those who do not.

Last November’s midterm elections were yet another reminder that fixing infrastructure is good politics. In communities across America and through dozens of ballot initiatives that sought to increase revenue for infrastructure, voters said “yes” and approved nearly 80 percent of them.

Last November was no anomaly. The success rate for pro-infrastructure ballot initiatives since 2009 has been 78 percent.

Meanwhile, an anti-infrastructure ballot measure in California that would have cut needed investments in the state’s highway systems not only failed badly, but most of the incumbent suburban members of Congress who backed the cuts lost their bids for re-election.

At the state level, policymakers have also received the message and have taken politically courageous votes to increase infrastructure user fees such as gasoline taxes and registration fees to modernize their infrastructure networks.

Since 2013, 30 states have increased their state gasoline tax, including reliably red states like South Carolina and Idaho and blue states like Oregon and Maryland. That’s proof that there are no Republican roads or Democratic bridges.

Policymakers on both sides of the aisle and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have an opportunity to win the long-term support of voters. They can do this by making bold policy choices that will speak to the frustrations of Americans and improve the quality of life for all Americans by fixing our ailing infrastructure.

There is still time to make a deal if both sides are willing to get serious and find the revenue necessary for a long-term infrastructure package. But time is of the essence.

Whether by updating decades-old user fees, identifying new sources of fiscally responsible revenue, or leveraging public funds with private investment, a solution is within reach.

Americans are tired of seeing our politicians bickering. And they view our broken infrastructure as a metaphor for our increasingly broken politics in Washington.

If the president and members of Congress can actually set aside their differences and produce an infrastructure bill that delivers results, they will not only rebuild aging and overburdened infrastructure, but begin to rebuild Americans’ confidence in our political system.

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That is why my association and our members across the country will continue to do everything in our power to encourage the president, Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Schumer to return to the negotiating table and get an infrastructure bill done.

Our message is clear: the best way to ensure America’s continued growth and global competitiveness is to make the investments needed to keep our infrastructure effective and efficient.