By Thomas Rausch
Infrastructure is a broad category that includes everything from roads and bridges to water mains and power lines to airports and seaports. It plays a fundamental, yet often overlooked, role in society. As infrastructure is something that is used by everybody, there is a vested social interest in maintaining functionality. This is why infrastructure is a bipartisan issue: everyone wants new roads built, existing water pipes maintained, and old power lines repaired. However, major infrastructure plans are seldom passed in Congress. Both liberals and conservatives agree that American infrastructure requires several major overhauls, but that’s where the agreement tends to stop. With infrastructure, the devil is in the details. It is time to discuss how infrastructure is funded, what legislation is currently on the table, and how to address infrastructure in America.
Deciding how exactly to approach these massive projects can be a point of contention, especially where funding is concerned. Some lawmakers want private investment to pay for the infrastructure; meanwhile, others want full public financing of the infrastructure investment. Still, more politicians want public-private partnerships. All three have their benefits and drawbacks.
Private infrastructure funding can be much easier to obtain than public funds, making the expansion and repair of privately funded infrastructure much quicker than other projects. This kind of investment also tends to focus on urban areas, where infrastructure can be the most profitable. 5G data service is an excellent example of private infrastructure investment.
Public-private infrastructure funding uses private and public funds to build infrastructure. This allows private capital and technology to be used for infrastructure along with government resources, but it can be a bureaucratic mess. The current construction of LaGuardia Airport in New York is a prime example of this.
Then there is public funding, which strictly uses government assets to build infrastructure. This is typically used for infrastructure that is not meant to be profitable, like most roads (especially rural ones).
The debate over funding infrastructure does not follow strict partisan lines. For example, Republicans typically endorse private and public-private infrastructure funding, which follows a more conservative, free-market economic model. However, they also support public funding for many projects, including roads and dams in rural areas, because a large portion of their voters lives in such areas, so they must also appeal to that demographic to retain their representative position. The Democrats are in a similar situation.
Many different infrastructure bills have been introduced to Congress since January, when the 116th Congress first convened. The most promising of which appears to be S.2302 – America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019. This bill would authorize the use of $287 billion to be used in transportation infrastructure over the next five years, most of which will be distributed to states to pursue their specific goals. Another essential piece of legislation is H.R.3791, which would provide funding to help renovate American airports, which are much older than comparable airports abroad. There are many other solutions that Congress has been trying to put forth. Many might come to fruition in the next year or two, but for now, only time will tell if Congress will pursue a new infrastructure plan.
There is a solution to the infrastructure problem: do it all. Use every asset available to ensure the safety and prosperity of the American people. Local, state, and federal governments can use private, public, and public-private partnerships to maintain, renovate, and rebuild American infrastructure. All of that funding will be necessary, as the American Society of Civil Engineers claims it will take $4.6 trillion to mend all of the required infrastructure. This includes the pipes carrying our nation’s drinking water, to the airports, roads, and public transit that facilitate the function of our economy. Neither side of the aisle wants their constituents to have unsafe drinking water. Neither party wants a bridge to collapse in their district, and action needs to be taken.
Finally, the looming question of infrastructure: why hasn’t anything been done? The answer is convoluted and confusing, but, to put it simply, there is a lack of political will to do anything about it. There will have to be a specific event that sparks enough political upheaval to force Congress into action; otherwise, the burden of funding infrastructure will fall to the state and local governments, most of which cannot afford to fix all of the infrastructure issues they have. Infrastructure is a huge issue, and it is bipartisan in nature. Both parties want it to be rebuilt, and both parties don’t have the political will to make it happen.
Thomas Rausch is a first-year student in the School of Foreign Service studying International Politics and Public Health