February 22, 2018

Both Sides of the Aisle Want Better Roads and Ports

During his State of the Union address, President Trump called for a broad bipartisan infrastructure package, pledging to improve the nation’s infrastructure and invest in the future. If you believe the news reports on partisan bickering in Washington, this bipartisan approach might seem impossible. But we know that it can, and will, happen.

We serve on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over most infrastructure bills. Its members include staunch conservatives and strong progressives—like us. Despite our differences, the committee has produced some of the largest and most effective bipartisan legislation of the past decade, such as laws to spur transportation and water projects and to harmonize the regulation of toxic substances.

Now we need to do it again. There’s a strong link between infrastructure investment and a robust economy that creates jobs. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that unless the U.S. starts making smart investments now, by 2025 the country will have forgone $3.9 trillion in gross domestic product, $7 trillion in business sales and 2.5 million American jobs.

The time is right to close the infrastructure gap. America’s economy is strong and poised to continue growing if Congress can work together to make smart decisions. In the past few weeks we’ve heard a lot from our colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike, about their respective priorities. The path to success is to start with shared goals.

The two of us believe that state and local leaders should identify and select the projects that are most needed in their communities. There is no one-size-fits-all federal solution for infrastructure. Local communities know best what they need, whether it’s to upgrade a wastewater facility in Warren, R.I., or repair a levee in Tulsa, Okla.

Money should be specifically designated for rural infrastructure. The unique needs of rural communities often make it difficult for them to compete with urban ones for private financing or traditional funding. By specifically designating resources for states to use in their rural areas—on roads or drinking and wastewater systems—we can ensure they have the means to upgrade and build.

Coastal communities face their own challenges. Bridges and water-treatment plants near the shore can confront hurricane winds and saltwater flooding. Bond ratings account for these risks, meaning coastal cities and counties face higher costs to finance public projects. A smart infrastructure plan would emphasize investment in coastal structures and systems, including the great ports that support jobs in fishing, shipping and trucking.

One way to provide greater autonomy to cities and states would be to expand existing bipartisan programs. The Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 1998 helps communities obtain low-interest loans to maintain roads or build a new highway. This program should be opened up to other forms of infrastructure, such as airports and inland waterways.

Finally, Congress should streamline the process for approving new projects, so that critical ones can get off the ground faster. The Treasury Departmentreports that among the major obstacles to completing infrastructure projects are inefficient reviews and lack of consensus among public and private entities.

Changing the process so that all stakeholders are brought to the table early on would help balance competing interests while still addressing safety and environmental concerns. That would allow infrastructure projects to move forward more quickly, enabling communities and businesses to make smart, timely investments. Meanwhile, the executive branch has its own job to do to improve its multiagency review process.

This is just the beginning of a long road to a truly comprehensive and bipartisan infrastructure bill. There are many policy areas about which Republicans and Democrats will need to debate and compromise, but that doesn’t deter us. We believe in getting results for the American people—and that starts with finding common ground.

Mr. Inhofe is a Republican senator from Oklahoma. Mr. Whitehouse is a Democratic senator from Rhode Island.

By: James Inhofe and Sheldon Whitehouse