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Flint Crisis Demonstrates Need to Invest in America's Infrastructure

February 24, 2016

The crisis in Flint, Michigan, has laid bare the consequences of austerity and under-investment in public infrastructure. Callous state officials, in the interest of short-term savings, switched the city’s source of water to the Flint River, then ignored evidence of lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ disease, triggering a devastating human tragedy. 

The poisoning of Flint residents isn't some out-of-the-blue occurrence. It's a consequence of a governing philosophy that puts austerity first and people last. It's the result of letting our infrastructure crumble. It's a symptom of an economic ideology that regards public services as costly and unnecessary, as though a clean, healthy and safe community isn't the essential right of every citizen.

Unions were among the first to provide aid to Flint. We are installing water filters in residences across the city and training workers to replace lead pipes, in order to get the poison out of the community as quickly as possible. But this is about more than water. Flint should serve as a wake-up call to the White House and Congress that under-investing in infrastructure is disastrous for the American people.

We know that lead contamination is widespread in Flint and other cities, and that there is no safe level of exposure. In Sebring, Ohio, and across the nation, we must uncover and repair sources of lead in the environment and have the decency to provide long-term support to the victims of lead exposure. 

This sad state of American infrastructure is no accident. Decades of timid, shortsighted thinking has choked off the prudent investments that underlie economic growth.  The effects on our nation’s transportation systems are debilitating. Outdated ports cannot accommodate increased shipping and cargo demand, making our maritime sector internationally uncompetitive.  Financially starved transit systems are cutting service and stranding working-class riders. Our bridges are literally falling down, and our aviation and rail systems are chronically underfunded. This is plain evidence of a failure of political leadership.

Investing in infrastructure has long-term benefits through improved health, quality of life and national competitiveness. It makes urban areas livable and rural areas accessible and viable. It is essential for efficient commerce of every sort, especially in manufacturing, energy, communication and agriculture. It affects how we educate our children and provide public services.

Unfortunately, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, our dams, inland waterways, wastewater, hazardous waste, roads, public transit, schools and aviation systems score a D+, with our public water systems specifically getting a D grade. The Environmental Protection Agency says it will cost $384 billion by 2030 to meet the capital needs of public water infrastructure throughout the United States.

Therefore, it is unconscionable that the White House and Congress continue to shortchange both the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, with the White House going so far as to cut one program to benefit the other, essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul. With significant investment in both of these programs, we could help avert future disasters like the one occurring in Flint.

The short-term payoff of substantial infrastructure investment is significant. Each $1 billion in infrastructure investment creates 13,000 to 15,000 jobs, concentrated in construction. Coupled with prevailing wage standards and project labor agreements (PLAs) at both the state and federal levels, joint labor-management training programs can provide well-trained workers, equipping them with long-term career skills that offer pathways to the middle class while ensuring quality and efficiency on the job. 

Investing in infrastructure at the necessary scale while utilizing community workforce agreements that open doors to traditionally underserved communities such as people of color, women and veterans can bring jobs and connectivity to places like Baltimore and Ferguson that suffer from continued high unemployment and economic isolation. Significant infrastructure spending will also help our manufacturing sector, which has been crushed by unfair trade agreements and falling demand.

Investing in infrastructure does not require us to reinvent the wheel. Increased baseline funding in existing programs is the fastest and most efficient way to spearhead maintenance and upgrades. Stable, dedicated funding sources for well-established programs will incentivize public and private sector actors to gear up capacity to meet the backlog of deserving projects.

Furthermore, expanding public investment in new areas, such as energy and pipeline infrastructure, will provide greater opportunities for skilled tradesmen and women to apply their craft.  Worker pension funds can and must be part of the infrastructure solution. Through investments in projects with high labor standards, these funds can earn competitive returns and provide middle-class job opportunities for workers.

How we spend the funds matters. Priority should be given to utilizing domestically manufactured products and equipment to maximize economic benefits here at home and ensure quality and resiliency. We must aggressively support and enforce Buy America policies, including domestic content preferences for federally supported infrastructure programs.

To get our nation’s infrastructure just to a B+ will require $3.2 trillion in investment, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. While it is unlikely that Congress will make the necessary investments to achieve this goal in the near term, we must begin by taking both reasonable and ambitious steps toward this long-term goal.

The public supports these investments, and any serious discussion of reviving our economy must include a significant infrastructure plan. Low interest rates will not last forever, and failing to finance a massive investment while rates are this low would be a mistake of historic proportions.

The labor movement is dedicated to building the sustainable political consensus needed to support an ambitious, long-term, infrastructure investment plan. A well-functioning and modern public infrastructure is necessary for the kind of society we want to have, and Americans are ready to demand that we invest in our communities and ourselves for a better future.

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