April 21, 2017

Whitehouse remarks on urgent need to invest in infrastructure

Mr. President, with the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act defeated, President Trump says he wants to move beyond health care to focus on other priorities.  One area he’s often highlighted is investing in our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, a priority I share and something I’ll discuss today. 

Every kid dreads having to bring home a bad report card.  My kids knew that if their grades dropped off, we’d be having a serious talk.

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card for U.S. infrastructure.  The 2017 report card, out just this month, shows poor marks across the board for our nation’s infrastructure:  our ports and bridges each got a C+; flat Ds for both our drinking water infrastructures and our roads, and our energy grid got a D+.

Overall, the United States took home a D+ grade point average.  Not pretty.  And not an improvement over the scores we got four years ago.  A report card is a progress report.  And our grades show we’re not making progress.

So, it’s time we got serious about the sorry state of America’s roads, bridges, ports, and pipes, which literally keep our economy moving.  The Civil Engineers estimate that we need an additional $2 trillion in infrastructure investments over the next 10 years to get our infrastructure back to a B grade level.

The study also found that if we don’t invest now, we are set to lose nearly $4 trillion in GDP and $7 trillion in lost business sales by 2025.  This would result in two-and-a-half million fewer jobs that year.

America’s declining infrastructure will also shoulder burgeoning demand.  The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates an additional 100 million more people will rely on our transportation system by mid-century.

The U.S. Department of Transportation says that we can expect twice the level of freight traffic on our highways and roads by then.  This means that these already worn-down roads, bridges, highways, rails, and ports are going to take an even heavier beating.

Mr. President, we must make smart investments in the infrastructure that is the backbone of American commerce.  We must make them now.  And we must make them for the long term.   

I am hopeful.  Transportation infrastructure has been a rare bipartisan bright spot in Congress.  After all, red and blue states alike have bridges that age and water mains that rupture.  Congress has tried many times to push large bipartisan infrastructure bills.        

In the 112th Congress, a bipartisan group led by Senators Kerry, Graham, and Hutchison introduced the BUILD Act to create a national infrastructure bank.  The measure would have authorized up to $10 billion to underwrite transportation, water, and energy projects.  It never got out of committee.

The Partnership to Build America Act, introduced in the 113th Congress by Senators Bennet and Blunt, also proposed an American Infrastructure Fund, this time financed with a form of tax repatriation.  This one also failed to advance. 

In the 114th Congress, we were able to pass the first long-term transportation law in ten years.  The FAST Act, short for Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, authorized more than $300 billion in transportation infrastructure investment over a five-year period.

We also passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act to address drinking water emergencies and to authorize a number of new Army Corps of Engineers projects, including the removal of pilings and other marine debris from the Providence River in Rhode Island.  These bipartisan successes, however, barely put a dent in our nation’s total infrastructure needs.

On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump spoke broadly of a $1 trillion infrastructure push.  I agree we must make a greater investment in America’s infrastructure.  But America’s needs require real commitment from Washington, not just private-public partnerships and nebulous tax cuts.  To bring our roads and bridges into the 21st century, this effort should be far-reaching, on the scale of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.

The Joint Economic Committee’s Democratic contingent put out a report analyzing the President’s proposal to use investor tax credits to close our infrastructure gap.  They found relying on these tax credits alone would actually “cost nearly 55 percent more than traditional infrastructure financing.”

In the absence of any sort of real plan or strategy from the President, Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Schumer, have put forward our own “Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure” that would invest $1 trillion in the nation’s infrastructure, creating over 15 million American jobs.

The Blueprint encompasses not just roads and bridges, but also parks, schools, hospitals, and airports.  It calls for investing $100 billion in small town communities that need revamped infrastructure, over $100 billion in water and sewer systems, $50 billion in railways, over $100 billion in public transportation, and $30 billion in ports.

It would put billions toward modernizing our energy grid by connecting rural areas and driving investment in clean energy.  Our proposal also includes strong support for American workers, something President Trump claims as a priority.  It includes “Buy America” provisions to promote American-made products and protections for our workers, including coverage by the Davis-Bacon law to ensure that they earn fair wages.

For a coastal state like Rhode Island that has to prepare for rising seas and increased storm surge from climate change, the Blueprint includes $25 billion to improve infrastructure that would make communities more resilient.  This includes competitive critical infrastructure resiliency funding, a new Resilient Communities Revolving Loan Fund, and support for the National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund, a provision I authored to back projects that research, restore, and reinforce our coasts.

The plan is big and it is bold.  And it should garner the support of anyone who says they want to improve America’s infrastructure and create jobs at home. 

Mr. President, this work is vitally important to my home state.  The American Society of Civil Engineers report card shines a light on Rhode Island’s particular infrastructure woes.  It shows we need $148 million in drinking water infrastructure needs and nearly $2 billion in wastewater infrastructure fixes over the next 20 years.  Rhode Island has $4.7 million of backlogged park system repairs and a $241 million gap in needed upgrades at our schools.  

More than half our roads are in poor condition.  This state of disrepair is costing my constituents money.  I have been told by the transportation research group TRIP that driving on cracked, crumbling roads costs Rhode Island motorists $604 million a year—more than $810 per motorist—in vehicle repair and operating costs.

In our state, 56 percent of the bridges are deficient or obsolete.  I’m sorry to say that’s the worst rate in the country.  These bridges are literally falling down piece by piece.  It’s really shocking to see.  

This is part of the 6/10 Connector in Providence.  The interchange is a vital link in the state’s highway network for vehicles traveling between Interstates 95, 195, and 295.  Dating back to the 1950s, it can no longer accommodate the approximately 100,000 automobiles and heavy trucks that travel on it each day.

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation has spent millions of dollars on temporary maintenance measures to keep the interchange in operation.  At the moment, parts of it are literally being held up by jury-rigged cement blocks and wooden pylons.

While Rhode Island is directing millions of state funds to the repair and replacement of these structures, we need federal financing to ensure this work gets done before a serious failure occurs, which could disrupt commerce along the entire Northeast Corridor or potentially cause injury.

The evidence of dangerous disrepair is all over my state.  Here is the crumbling bridge at Route 37.  This east-west freeway services the cities of Cranston and Warwick.  You can see the tumbledown cement and rusting ironwork.  Not very reassuring.

Here is another rusted, ramshackle bridge at Park Avenue over I-95.  Mr./Madam President, we can save money in the long run if we invest in this work today.  

We also have to consider how this strained infrastructure will hold up under the effects of climate change.  Most of the bridges, roads, ports, rails, and other transit systems in the Ocean State are, as you might imagine, very close to the coast.

This infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise, storm surge, and more severe storms driven by climate change.

Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released updated global sea level rise estimates, including for the U.S. coastlines.  The estimate for the “extreme” scenario—that is, if we continue to emit high levels of carbon pollution—was increased by a half meter to a total of 2.5 meters, or over eight feet, of global mean sea level rise by 2100.

Under almost all emissions scenarios, sea levels in the Northeast Atlantic—the coastline of Virginia through Maine—will be greater than the global mean.  My state’s Coastal Resources Management Council has adopted the “high” scenario for coastal planning purposes, a scenario that puts nine vertical feet of sea level rise on top Rhode Island’s coast by 2100.  And remember, when you go up nine feet, the shore goes back many, many hundreds of feet in many places.  Along with our homes and businesses, our infrastructure lies right in the path of that rising tide.

We need to protect evacuation routes from flooding and bolster hurricane barriers.  We need to replenish beaches and nourish wetlands.  We need to raise ports and reinforce bridges that are exposed to corrosive saltwater and storms.  We need to manage upstream reservoirs to control downstream flooding.

We need to protect underground drinking water supplies from intruding saltwater.  And we need to retrofit lowland wastewater treatment plants.  These improvements are not cosmetic; they are essential if my state and others along the coasts have any chance meeting our needs over the next 50 or 100 years.  And unfortunately, they’re not cheap.

Every coastal state, especially those in the Northeast and western Gulf of Mexico, which are expected to see the most dramatic rises in sea level, should be nervous.  That’s why the Democratic infrastructure Blueprint includes $25 billion for resilient communities, including support for that National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund.

I have worked to establish this lifeline for the coasts since my early days in the Senate.  Once funded, it can be a tremendous resource for coastal infrastructure improvements and smart coastal development.

President Trump has said he wants a $1 trillion infrastructure bill.  I am ready to roll up my sleeves and get this done.  Democrats have put forward a Blueprint for making the investments that our nation so badly needs.  Congress must come together on a plan that will provide direct, long-term support and help all communities address current needs, while also preparing for the changes we know are coming in the future.  I am eager to get to work with my Senate colleagues and the administration to create jobs, ensure safe roads, protect our communities, and lift the economy.  Let’s get to work.

I yield the floor.