The United States is not racked with the turmoil that is shaking the Arab world, or the tragic devastation that has hit Japan. We are not in a state of emergency. We’re in a moment when it is possible to look thoughtfully at the American landscape and take rational steps to ensure a better, more sustainable future.
But we’re not doing that. The big news out of Washington this week was Representative Peter King’s Muslim witch hunt. Policy makers at all levels of government are talking austerity — sometimes sensibly, but most often mindlessly. Creative ideas regarding energy, education, jobs and so forth have trouble even getting a hearing.
Now comes Senator John Kerry hoping to buck the frustrating tide with a modest proposal. He mentioned in a speech in January that through most of its history America could build things — not just manufacture goods, but build the infrastructure that is required for a nation to be great: “We built a transcontinental railroad. We built an interstate highway system. We built the rockets that let us explore the farthest edge of the solar system and beyond.”
But that time has passed, and it’s not an overstatement to say that unless we atone for our infrastructure sins the high tide of American greatness will have passed as well. How is it, for example, that we don’t already have in place the infrastructure policies to support the vast potential of the green energy market, projected to surpass $2 trillion by the end of this decade?
It’s an investment opportunity not to be missed. But somehow the United States is missing it. “Two years ago,” said Senator Kerry, “China accounted for just 5 percent of the world’s solar panel production. Now it boasts the world’s largest solar panel manufacturing industry, exporting about 95 percent of its production to other countries, including the United States. We invented the technology, but China is reaping the rewards.”
It would cost the United States a staggering amount to get its overall infrastructure into decent shape — the best recent estimate is $2.2 trillion over the next five years. Without substantial investments, we’re in danger of being overwhelmed by an enormous range of problems, including ever-longer commutes, an inadequate energy grid, difficulties getting commercial products to market, breakdowns in essential communications and the loss of industries, investments and jobs to competitors overseas.
The investments are essential, but where is the money to finance them?
Senator Kerry will introduce legislation next week to create a federal infrastructure bank — officially, the American Infrastructure Financing Authority — to provide loans and loan guarantees to large, essential infrastructure projects. The loans will be seed money used to leverage other sources of funding.
“These are strictly loans — not grants — for commercially viable projects,” the senator said. “The federal government does no more than 50 percent of the loan. We expect that to leverage $600 billion or so in infrastructure investments over time.”
Mr. Kerry said the initial cost to the government would be $10 billion. Other proposals to establish an infrastructure bank have been more ambitious and more expensive. Senator Kerry is anticipating — or, at least, hoping for — bipartisan support and a nod from the Obama administration for this more modest initiative.
We’ve moved so far from that forward-looking, can-do philosophy of prior eras that there is a danger that we really are incapable of preventing the nation’s infrastructure from deteriorating further. We’ve seen how catastrophic that can be. New Orleans was all but lost for want of an adequate system of levees and floodwalls. Thirteen people were killed in the rush-hour collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Natural gas pipelines are blowing up in city after city. And the sorry condition of so many streets and highways contributes, at least in part, to the deaths of thousands of motorists every year.
Creation of an infrastructure bank would be an important indication that leaders in Washington are still capable, despite most of the available evidence, of moving beyond partisan paralysis to engage one of the biggest challenges facing the country. If there is such a thing as a master key to a better American future, investment in the nation’s infrastructure would be it. That is the biggest potential source of jobs. That is how you build the foundation for new and innovative industries.
I sometimes try to imagine New York City without its subways, or the United States without the interstate highway system. Those kinds of projects could not be built today. Try to imagine life in the 21st century without the Internet. Imagine if we had never gone to the moon.
Maybe that’s what’s missing today. The ability to imagine.