By Ty Gable
President, National Precast Concrete Association
Some years ago on a trip through Memphis, I took the tour of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion. Saw the wall of gold records, eyed the outrageous stage outfits, checked out the Caddys and one of his two airplanes, and perused the endless assortment of souvenir trinkets that were everywhere. It was eerie and kind of sad and unfulfilling, because the central piece was missing – Elvis had left the building a long time ago.
This economic recovery is like that trip to Graceland. The economy just barely survived the late-2008 meltdown and is inching forward, and construction is stumbling slowly ahead, but we’re missing a central piece in this recovery: the infrastructure.
Our infrastructure is crumbling, and Congress is nowhere near serious enough about addressing what is a quality of life issue for every American. Not that politics ever made sense, but there’s some simple logic at play here. If we don’t fix it, it will get worse, and it will be more costly to fix it on an emergency basis. What’s the cost of rerouting traffic on a rural route because a bridge is out? How much money is wasted cleaning up sewer overflows? How much fuel disappears in exhaust fumes while people are stuck in traffic on roads that are overwhelmed by traffic? Those are infrastructure costs too, and we’re paying them every day in municipalities across the country. What’s the true cost of NOT doing something – the cost of neglect?
I don’t agree with former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell on much, but I do agree with him on the infrastructure when he says, “We invest or we die.” Rendell has always been a pro-infrastructure guy but says he really got religion when he was mayor of Philadelphia during a harsh winter. When the temperature shot up to 65 degrees after a long cold spell, the city had 58 water main explosions over a two-day period. “Most of these were caused by pipes that had been laid in the 19th century,” Rendell said at an American Water Summit event last year. That’s the cost of neglect.
It was a robust infrastructure that propelled us to super power status – made it possible to move goods around the country, facilitated our manufacturing juggernaut in the last half of the 20th century, helped create our middle class. Precast companies were a big part of that build-out, supplying the product for wastewater and stormwater systems, highway components and an endless array of infrastructure products that are the nuts and bolts of our industry. With Washington in an indiscriminate deficit hacking mood, there seems to be little appetite for investing in – or even maintaining – our failing roads, bridges, sewer systems and water treatment plants. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our infrastructure a D grade and suggests that we’ll need $2.2 trillion to fix it over the next five years.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for cutting government spending, and I don’t want tax increases in the top income bracket. Many of those in the top brackets are small business owners who operate as S Corporations and would be handcuffed by higher taxes from growing their businesses and adding workers.
But both sides need to quit talking past each other and get down to some serious negotiations that include eliminating all the “nice to haves” in the budget. There are hundreds – maybe thousands – of places to trim. We may have to get creative in funding our future infrastructure needs, but we can do it. The first step is agreeing that there’s a problem and a need to fix it. Did I mention that the ASCE report on the infrastructure gave our drinking water a D-minus? We should be ashamed.
Many in the construction industry are urging infrastructure investment, and I agree. Surely the jobs created would help trim the 20% construction unemployment rate that has been tracking at more than double the national unemployment rate since the recession started. But jobs are a short-term benefit. The long-term is a healthy, robust infrastructure that will enable us to compete in the 21st century and continue to lead the world. If we don’t, I’m seeing a future where we’re stuck down on the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel.