Have you ever driven up I-95 on a weekend? Tried living in Los Angeles without a car? Taken a train directly to JFK airport? Oh, wait—you couldn’t even do that last one, because it doesn’t exist. Infrastructure in the U.S. is dismal—whether it’s crumbling roads, underfunded public transportation networks, or less visible things like power grids and sewer systems.
A lot of time when we’re stuck in traffic or our internet is running slowly, it feels like a nuisance. But it’s actually something much more serious: an obstacle to economic growth. Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that by 2020, “aging and unreliable” infrastructure will cost American businesses $1.2 trillion.
Needless waste is not an efficient way to run a business—or a household balance sheet. We shouldn’t have workers diverting their retirement savings into gas tanks and businesses bleeding cash for their shipments and workers to sit in traffic.
With such obvious drawbacks, why can’t we get our act together?
Part of the problem is an increasingly prevalent short-term mentality, combined with a historic level of political paralysis. As we saw earlier this year, Congress couldn’t even pass a transportation bill that gets us past next May, and had to resort to budget gimmicks to do it. There’s no question that we have much to do to reduce our deficits, and that there are a lot of difficult choices to make, but infrastructure investment—designed in such a way to attract private sector participation—is absolutely crucial to long-term economic health.
Infrastructure helps to solve both long-term and short-term economic problems. In the short-term, infrastructure investment helps provide jobs for low skilled workers, who are struggling with the long-term impacts of the financial crisis as well as the increasing impact of technology on the job market.
In the long-term, infrastructure has a wide range of benefits. A pipe manufacturer will be able to produce and distribute its goods more effectively and cheaply. A technology company will pay a better price to power its servers. A school district will be able to use water more efficiently. A commuter won’t see a day’s pay disappear at the pump.
Business will be able to use the money they save to invest in new equipment and technologies, create jobs, and help control prices. Governments will be able to make better use of tax dollars (and potentially even cut taxes). And individuals will be able to put money towards a college fund or simply spend their extra cash.