November 13, 2008

Remarks of Sheldon Whitehouse to the Providence Business News 2008 Business Excellence Awards Program

Thank you, Frank, and congratulations to this year’s award recipients: President Machtley; Cox Communications; Gates, Leighton & Associates; South County Hospital Healthcare System; International Institute of Rhode Island; and Saint John Stone. I am so pleased to be here today to celebrate your achievements.

We are coming together at a time of deepening recession that has left millions of Americans struggling to hold onto their retirement savings, their homes, and their livelihoods.

Nearly one in eleven Rhode Islanders is looking for a job. At 8.8%, our unemployment rate is higher than it has been in 16 years. It is now the highest in the nation.

Against this dark background, jobs mean security: steady employment helps families pay the bills and plan for the future. Jobs mean confidence in an unsettled time. In this weakening economy, job creation should be our highest economic priority.

Next Monday, we will return to Washington for the final session of the 110th Congress. During this session, the Senate may consider a stimulus package that could involve tens of billions of dollars.

I will argue that the single most important thing the federal government can do to create those jobs and boost the economy is to invest in our nation’s infrastructure, from construction and repair work on our highways, bridges, and water systems to construction and maintenance projects in our schools; and weatherization in our neighborhoods.

Last month, I wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urging him to include infrastructure in those areas in any stimulus measure that we consider.

Why? Well let’s start with roads. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that every $1 billion invested in transportation infrastructure will support 35,000 jobs. And we get a new road out of it. With $18 billion of projects ready to go nationwide, and about $57 million’s worth in Rhode Island alone, we can get the work out rapidly.

We have to fix the roads sooner or later; in Rhode Island we have at least two major bridges to repair: why not do it now, and help contractors and construction workers and their suppliers put food on the table?

It’s not just roads and bridges. We also need to upgrade our water infrastructure. Every state in the nation has a lengthy backlog of wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects that are ready to begin construction today. Rhode Island currently has over 200 approved wastewater infrastructure projects totaling $900 million; many of those could start today.

As a nation, we’ve underfunded our water and sewer infrastructure for years, by a lot. Again, we’ll have to make those improvements sooner or later – let’s do it now. These projects create well-paying jobs, but they also improve public health and protect our environment.

These major transportation and water infrastructure projects will create jobs for big contractors, but they’re not the only ones who need help in this economy – nor are those projects the only work we need to get done. High energy costs and the danger of global warming mean we need to do more, all over the country, to use less of our natural resources, and shrink our carbon footprint.

Why not start with our schools? Many need to be upgraded anyway. Regrettably, a lot of our schools are in disrepair and need pretty significant upgrades and major maintenance. As part of that construction work, we have significant opportunities for “greening” these structures to save energy, so it’s a two-for. Such upgrades can create thousands of jobs for mid-sized contractors, who can’t compete for the big highway projects.

Finally, to provide work for smaller, local contractors, we should increase funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program, which makes homes more energy efficient. With home oil prices still higher than they were last year, this is a “three-for” investment: it will create jobs and help families pay their bills; it will reduce heating bills; and by reducing demand it will help with energy prices and move toward energy independence.

This is a lot of spending at a time when we’ve already been saddled with $7.7 trillion in increased deficits left us by the Bush administration. Our deficits are serious – indeed, dangerous. That’s another reason I’m so adamant about infrastructure. Even the sternest deficit hawks admit we need spending now to support the economy.

As long as we have to do that, as long as we have to stimulate the economy, let’s do it in a way that moves the cash asset into a physical asset, particularly one that is an eventual obligation we’d have to pay for anyway. When we invest in infrastructure, we’re not only creating jobs, we’re creating a lasting physical asset – a bridge, a school, a treatment plant; as long as we really need the project, it’s another win-win for the American people to get the economic boost now.

Second point: I don’t know what it is about discussing infrastructure, but have you noticed that whenever we talk about infrastructure, we seem to be talking about stuff the Romans could build? Roads, bridges, aqueducts…

The last few decades have seen enormous innovation in this country: new communications platforms; the Internet and mobile phones; new sources of energy. This technological revolution is transforming the way we live and work, just as the rail system did after the Civil War, or the highway system did after World War II.

And just as the federal government helped build the railways and highways, today, government can support the infrastructure of the 21st century. But first we have to agree on – what is infrastructure? When there is a public good to be achieved, and the economics don’t allow the private sector to achieve it, but government can help that public good happen, that’s what I call infrastructure. The concept of infrastructure is not defined by its physical nature, but by its economic nature.

Where is this new infrastructure needed? If we recognize that we stand on the verge of a green revolution, and that to protect ourselves we must reduce our dependence on dirty fuels, we see the need to overhaul our nation’s electricity infrastructure.
Wind, solar and other developing renewable energy sources are our future, but we cannot fully realize their potential until our transmission lines are upgraded and expanded. Wind power off the shores of Rhode Island or concentrated solar operations in the desert southwest can’t get power where it’s needed, in our biggest U.S. cities, without an enhanced transmission system.

Conservation and demand management are an important part of our energy future, but they depend on a smart distribution grid that can reward you for turning off an appliance or running it at night. The Romans couldn’t build transmission and distribution networks – but we must, if we are to power the economy of our future.

A similar revolution awaits us in the way we power our automobiles. Cars and trucks account for 70% of petroleum consumption, and are America’s greatest source of global warming pollution. One day soon, we’ll power our cars with electricity, with hybrid-electric and fully electric plug-in vehicles, and we’ll need a nationwide infrastructure of “refueling” stations for those plug-in electric cars. There will be an infrastructure element to that. The Romans couldn’t build power networks for plug-in cars – but we can and we must, if we are to end our dependence on foreign oil.

Public transportation infrastructure can help combat global warming and relieve congestion on our jammed roads. In Europe, high speed rail has been used for years. Here in Rhode Island, those of us who use Amtrak can see the value of high speed or light rail infrastructure linking our cities. It could change the way people commute and do business in the decades to come. The Romans couldn’t build light rail or high-speed trains – but we can and we must.

Let me add a last one you might not have thought of. As all of you know, I have fought for years to encourage the development of a national health information network to improve the quality and efficiency of health care, save money, and save lives. This network is growing at the speed of mud – health care has the worst information technology of any American industry except the mining industry – and it’s because of economics, our strange, perverse health care economics.

If we can solve the health information network problem, private industry will develop technology to allow doctors to prescribe drugs electronically and to know if you took them, to update patients’ vital information in real time and cross-reference your health issues with the best illness prevention strategies, to avoid medical errors with decision support programs implementing best medical practices.

Just look at what private technology and innovation has done with the Internet – Google, E-Bay, Amazon, YouTube, Facebook, whose life has not been changed? – and imagine what can happen in health care. Wonderful opportunities beckon.

But unless the federal government gets involved, to set standards for this technology that everyone can agree on – the resolution of a digital X-Ray image, for instance, or requirements protecting patients’ privacy or leveling economic obstacles – we will never get a nationwide system. The Romans couldn’t build an electronic health information exchange, but we can, and we must, if we are to bring health care into the 21st century.

Clearly these are difficult times for our economy. But the surest road to recovery is to call on America’s entrepreneurial and innovative spirit – the same spirit you celebrate here tonight – to turn these challenges into our greatest opportunities. One important way to do that is to make sure we maintain infrastructure on which that competition flourishes – as happened with the rail system, the highways, and the Internet – and that this infrastructure is properly and timely deployed, even if it’s something the Romans couldn’t build.

Thank you.