Don’t let infrastructure fall victim to politics again

Bipartisan bill would bring real and immediate change, including through “public private partnerships”

While the government should lead the charge, the private sector has a role to play when it comes to infrastructure upgrades, Cornett and Nutter write.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
While the government should lead the charge, the private sector has a role to play when it comes to infrastructure upgrades, Cornett and Nutter write. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 26, 2021 at 5:00am

Over the last five years, infrastructure week has become a punchline in Washington, D.C., conversations. The lofty promises of rebuilding America’s roads, tunnels, bridges and airports went unfulfilled during the Trump administration, yet another victim of the political infighting and posturing that consumes our national political discourse these days.

Beyond the Beltway, the need for infrastructure improvements did not just go away — it only got worse. A report card issued this year from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States’ infrastructure a “C-” — hardly a grade to write home about.

As former mayors, we have made hard decisions to keep cities running. We have faced tough budgets and made do with less to make public dollars go further. Simply taking your ball and going home because you do not get your political way is not an option available to the chief executive of a city.

We were heartened to see the recent breakthrough in the Senate on infrastructure legislation. Leaders from both parties negotiated in good faith and reached an agreement that was perfect to neither side but acceptable to both, a sign of a legitimate compromise. It was funded not through further tax increases, but largely through unspent funds allocated as part of COVID-19 relief.

Another funding source under the bipartisan agreement was something called “public private partnerships,” or “P3s” for short. P3s are founded on the principle that the private sector can and should play a role in infrastructure upgrades. Private companies would put up the initial capital to get these projects off the ground and would recoup their investment over time. It saves taxpayer money and incentivizes the industry, with their resources on the line, to complete the work in a timely and efficient manner.

Last year, the private sector worked together with public officials on the most consequential partnership ever: the development of three life-saving COVID-19 vaccines. If it sounds like a simple concept, it is. The list of challenges facing our nation right now is daunting. While government should lead the charge, the private sector can play a role.

Unfortunately, the future of the infrastructure bill remains uncertain. After passing the Senate, it moved to the House, where there was disagreement within the majority party over coupling it with a much larger $3.5 trillion spending package. Under a deal reached this week, it is now scheduled for a vote later in September.

We are not here to cast blame or lob partisan bombs. There’s enough of that in Washington these days. We are here to urge cooler heads to prevail. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater or let this good piece of legislation become another victim of politics.

We are hopeful the infrastructure bill will move forward in the House by the Sept. 27 deadline. There is a lot for everyone to like, and it will have real, immediate and consequential effects for the better.

At long last, let’s make infrastructure week a real thing.

Mick Cornett is a Republican who served as mayor of Oklahoma City from 2005 to 2018.

Michael Nutter is a Democrat who served as mayor of Philadelphia from 2008 to 2016.

They are co-chairs of Let’s Build Infrastructure, a bipartisan coalition dedicated to advancing private investment in U.S. infrastructure projects.