Why a bipartisan infrastructure package is a ‘must do’ for Congress

Local leaders know firsthand the consequences of decades of inaction

Construction of bridges continue in Fort Worth, Texas, in February 2020. The time for maintaining the status quo on infrastructure policies and processes is behind us, Maness writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Construction of bridges continue in Fort Worth, Texas, in February 2020. The time for maintaining the status quo on infrastructure policies and processes is behind us, Maness writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 8, 2021 at 6:00am

For years, local leaders have heard promises of investments in infrastructure without Congress passing significant legislation to repair our nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, water systems and more.

While we wait, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure another dismal ‘C-’ in its 2021 report card, finding that almost half of the nation’s roadways are in poor or mediocre condition and that the U.S. loses an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water each day due to water main breaks. Presented with facts like these, any good teacher (which I was) or local leader (which I am) knows it’s time to end the talk and take action.

Congress must pass a bipartisan recovery package that invests in the infrastructure, connectivity and workforce development of our nation. Last week, President Joe Biden proposed a sweeping infrastructure package to rebuild our communities and address the economic impacts from the devastation of COVID-19. The American Jobs Plan is built to fill in the $2.6 trillion infrastructure investment gap that has been exacerbated throughout the pandemic by revenue shortfalls that have forced 65 percent of municipalities to delay or completely cancel crucial infrastructure projects and repairs.

To jumpstart the conversation in Washington, the president’s plan and forthcoming budget should prompt Congress to begin piecing together a bipartisan package — one that can actually pass.

As our leaders in Washington get to the negotiation table with a good faith effort to create a plan, local leaders on the ground have a few clear bipartisan priorities that Congress should focus on first.

Transportation

Rebuild transportation with us — rather than by bypassing us. Local governments own and manage 80 percent of the nation’s urban, suburban and rural roads. But small towns like mine in South Carolina don’t get consistent input into the use of federal transportation grants, which are funneled through state governments.

Congress not only needs to increase grants for smaller municipalities, but also enhance programs like Surface Transportation Block Grants to help build cohesive connectivity between our nation’s small towns and larger roadways and into rural America.

Water infrastructure

When it comes to funding our nation’s water infrastructure, local governments are quite literally carrying the water, providing over 95 percent of funding for water delivery and treatment systems across the country. In maintaining access to clean and safe water for residents and businesses throughout the pandemic, local utilities have incurred high costs and are now facing a steep drop in revenues needed to fix crumbling water infrastructure.

Congress needs to provide additional support through grants to local governments for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater management to maintain public health and affordable access to clean water over the critical next several months of the pandemic recovery.

Broadband

At a time when remote work and learning is the new normal for many of our communities, too many American households and businesses still remain cut off from reliable internet access.

Throughout the pandemic, local governments led the way in closing the homework gap, distributing mobile hotspots and laptops to needy households and providing public Wi-Fi access points in parks. But in nearly half of all states, outdated laws bar local governments from building broadband networks and offering service directly to residents.

Congress should fix these outdated laws, support funding for public and private broadband infrastructure, and make permanent the broadband subsidy for low-income households created in response to the pandemic.

Human capital

But we can’t do the work of building and maintaining our physical infrastructure without also investing in our human capital infrastructure. With as many as 7 million jobs that may not return to the labor market after the pandemic fully subsides, we need to ensure we have a prepared workforce ready to build and modernize the roads, bridges, waterways and broadband systems that connect and fortify our communities.

A successful infrastructure package must include a robust investment of $100 billion to provide local workers — especially those who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic — with the pathways and support they need to access good-paying infrastructure, manufacturing and clean energy jobs.

This is not a ‘wish list.’ Infrastructure is a ‘must do’ that Americans expect their government can get done. As leaders of the 19,000 cities, towns and villages where 80 percent of all Americans live and work, we have a firsthand understanding of the consequences that decades of waiting has had on our communities.

The time for maintaining the status quo on infrastructure policies and processes is behind us, and we urge both parties to work in good faith toward a package that can give our hometowns the tools and resources they need to recover from the pandemic.

Kathy Maness, a Republican, serves on the Town Council of Lexington, South Carolina, and is the president of the National League of Cities.