By Madeline Janis
This column originally appeared in Forbes.
Last week, hundreds of communities, elected officials, labor unions, workers, and industry leaders gathered for the seventh annual Infrastructure Week to underscore the pressing need for investment in the renewal and modernization of America’s crumbling infrastructure.
Calls to build safer, cleaner, smarter, greener, bluer, and all-around better infrastructure projects rang across dozens of panels, events, and in the media. With a $2 trillion infrastructure package on the line, business leaders need to step up and fight for the common good in the form of public infrastructure spending — or suffer the consequences. And only truly inclusive investment in our infrastructure will yield the economic, social, and environmental gains that this country needs.
It’s no secret that much of the country’s infrastructure — from roads and aviation systems to waterways and ports — is currently under-maintained, too old, or simply over capacity. Our infrastructure is in such a serious state of deterioration and disinvestment that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave it a “D+” rating in 2017.
Businesses and their workers are feeling the impact. Chronic underinvestment in transit means that commuters waste an average of 42 hours per year and millions of dollars in fuel stuck in traffic. Extreme weather events have taken their toll on our reservoirs. Dam and levee failures have led to massive evacuations, contaminated drinking water systems, and have and put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.
A strong public sector that has the resources to rebuild our infrastructure is a prerequisite to a healthy American business climate. As Senator Elizabeth Warren said in 2011, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.”
With the 2017 Republican tax cuts, the federal debt has skyrocketed and we now have fewer public resources to invest in infrastructure. The result is is that factories — as well as the workers and communities that benefit from them — suffer. So long as the sustained attack on government’s ability to raise the revenue necessary to maintain our roads, bridges, water systems, and mass transit continues, deteriorating infrastructure will continue to cost businesses and the overall economy. Failing to act on infrastructure now could translate into an additional 2.5 million jobs lost by 2025.
Winning increased investment in infrastructure is only half of the solution. Only by leveraging our infrastructure spending to advance inclusion and fight for the common good will businesses and communities maximize economic gains.
By tying infrastructure investments to enforceable equity, inclusion, and job quality measures, we can create and expand access to high-quality jobs for people from marginalized communities, especially those who face barriers to employment. At a time when concerns about persistent labor shortages are mounting in the manufacturing, construction industries, and other infrastructure-adjacent sectors, inclusive investments help businesses build up a skilled labor pool while boosting their bottom line.
The math isn’t hard. Communities across the country facing unprecedented crises — from the impact of climate breakdown on homes and neighborhoods to financial instability, a dearth of affordable housing, and rising transportation costs. And if there’s one thing voters and politicians on both sides of the aisle agree on, it’s that investing in infrastructure is a top priority. Nearly 80 percent of voters identified infrastructure spending as an “extremely important” priority for 2019.
Research has proven that taking a healthy, inclusive approach to infrastructure investment could support or create an additional 14.5 million job-years across the U.S. economy and add a cumulative $1.66 trillion to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over 10 years. Rather than pressing for tax cuts and smaller government, businesses must step up to fight for the funding needed to solve our common infrastructure problems. That way, businesses across the country can continue to benefit from roads, bridges, mass transit, clean water, clean air, police, fire, schools, and everything else that makes a country great.