Putting Prosperity Within Reach

During the State of the Union speech, President Obama said, "Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise." If our collective hope is for prosperity, one of the ways we can get there is by restoring the strength of the systems we rely on to get us back and forth to work, supply our power, keep us safe from floods when storms rage, and make sure we can communicate with each other. To put prosperity within our reach, we need a strong infrastructure to build upon.

It all boils down to something the president said in the State of the Union: "...in today's global economy, first-class jobs gravitate to first-class infrastructure."

Beneath sneaker soles and car treads, under the sidewalks and roads we travel every day, beneath manhole covers, overhead on a vast network of wires, and even under the kitchen sink, a vital network of systems maintains our quality of life. If we take clean drinking water, electric power at the flip of a switch, or heat in the winter for granted we'll soon be left without them.

Beyond that, infrastructure investments and economic growth are one in the same. According to Steven Landau, a researcher in Boston at the Economic Development Research Group, weak transportation infrastructure alone will shave 0.2 percentage points off economic growth this year. On the other hand the return on investment can't be beat: every $1 billion spent creates around 18,000 jobs. These aren't just any jobs; in many places they're considered the best job in town.

And, let's be clear: Investing in our transportation infrastructure doesn't just mean roads and bridges; it also means investments in transit. One example is John Desm, who works at New Flyer in St. Cloud, Minnesota -- a regional center. New Flyer is the leading manufacturer of heavy-duty buses in the U.S. and Canada. For 11 years, John has worked as an assembly technician. He inspects the buses that are all built to order and makes sure they meet customer standards before leaving the facility. New Flyer buses are made and assembled in America and take millions of people to home, work and school in every major American city everyday including New York City; Washington, D.C.; Miami, Fla., and Atlanta, Ga. Next up is the city of Los Angeles, which ordered up to 900 buses from the company to update their fleet. That order alone is expected to create up to 150 jobs at John's facility in St. Cloud.

Let's face it: Economic growth will go even further if we use American-made materials and manufacture our infrastructure components here at home. Economic studies show a total of 77,000 additional jobs could be created in manufacturing, based on an investment of $148 billion a year (including $93 billion of public investment). Smart policies like "Buy America" are already used by the U.S. Department of Transportation and they drive growth in jobs here in the United States by ensuring we're not passing up American companies to buy from companies overseas. Our investments in infrastructure should prioritize American-made goods and raw materials to ensure we get the most from our taxpayer dollars.

Americans of past generations were inspired by great infrastructure projects that opened up commerce and created thousands of jobs like the Interstate Highway system, Transcontinental Railroad and Erie and Panama canals. But let's make sure that America's best infrastructure projects are in front of us, and not behind us. We know the state of our infrastructure needs some work -- our "D+" rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers isn't and never will be good enough. Every now and then, it helps to be reminded of the values we share and the goals we're all working for as the president did in the State of the Union.

Let's make 2014 a year of action. In a surprising bipartisan move five Republican and five Democratic senators have sponsored an infrastructure bank bill. And in the U.S. House Representative DeLauro and nearly 90 other members have introduced the National Infrastructure Development Bank Act. Let the hard work -- and big rewards -- of implementing this vision begin.