Invest in infrastructure now, unions urge

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Wednesday morning – just hours before the bridge collapse, Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska introduced bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate “to revitalize, repair, and replace America’s aging and crumbling roads, bridges, transit systems, and water treatment facilities.”

Unions that for decades have advocated for investment in the nation’s infrastructure hope Wednesday’s bridge collapse will finally spur action.

“It’s been talked about for years – something’s going to happen like a bridge falls down,” said Jim Brady, president of the Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota. Several of his members working on the I-35W bridge were injured when it fell just after 6 p.m. during rush hour in Minneapolis.

“It’s not popular to spend money on this stuff,” he noted in frustration. “It tends to get ignored. Then something like this happens and you can’t ignore it.”

A full investigation of what caused the collapse will take many months. But Building Trades leaders say it’s not necessary to know the cause to move ahead on needed improvements in roads, bridges, transit and water systems and other public resources.

“There has been case after case after case of infrastructure failure” across the United States, said Dick Anfang, president of the Minnesota Building & Construction Trades Council. “This is a First World country, not a Second or Third World country.”

System in crisis

Report after report has used the word “crisis” to describe the state of the nation’s infrastructure.

In May of this year, the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young published an analysis which concluded that “the United States’ relatively low investment in virtually all aspects of mobility-related infrastructure — airports, public transit, railway systems, roads and bridges — is an ’emerging crisis’ that will compromise the ability of the nation’s cities to compete globally.”

The report’s authors added, “America is more of a follower and no longer a world leader when it comes to infrastructure.”

Wednesday morning – just hours before the bridge collapse, Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska introduced bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate “to revitalize, repair, and replace America’s aging and crumbling roads, bridges, transit systems, and water treatment facilities.”

The senators said infrastructure failure is “a looming crisis that jeopardizes the prosperity and quality of life of all Americans.”

Statistics cited in the legislation are alarming. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the current condition of the nation’s major infrastructure system earns a grade point average of D. The average age of drinking water and wastewater systems range in age from 50 to 100 years in age.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, $140 billion is needed every year over the next 20 years to repair deficient roads and bridges. The average age of bridges is 40 years.

Nothing new

The statistics are not new to Building Trades and public employee unions, whose members build and maintain the nation’s infrastructure.

At union meetings and in classrooms, at the polls and at every level of government, the labor movement has long advocated for more investment – not only because it creates jobs, but because it affects the quality of life for everyone.

Tony DeAngelis, an instructor at the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service, recalled teaching a class 25 years ago to union members on “Reaganomics and the Infrastructure.”

“We talked about the Reagan tax cut and its future effect on roads, bridges, all that,” DeAngelis said. Among the statistics the students learned: 1 of every 5 bridges in the United States in 1982 was in need of major rehabilitation or reconstruction.

In 1984, a young AFSCME delegate from Minnesota – Pete Benner – introduced a resolution at his union’s international convention titled “”Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure.” The resolution called on the federal government to invest in both maintenance and new construction and contained specific recommendations to address the issue immediately.

AFSCME delegates passed the measure unanimously and forwarded it to Congress. None of its recommendations has been implemented.

Organized labor has worked in partnership with other organizations to promote infrastructure investment. During this year’s legislative session, unions joined in a coalition that included farmers, business executives, environmentalists and transit advocates to promote a comprehensive transportation funding package. The measure was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Inescapable conclusion

Last week at the Minnesota Building & Construction Trades Council convention in Mankato, numerous speakers raised the issue of lack of investment in Minnesota’s roads, bridges, schools and other public resources. They also condemned Pawlenty for his vetoes of a bonding bill and two transportation measures to reduce gridlock on the roads.

Anfang said there’s no escaping the fact that lack of investment in infrastructure is directly tied to shortsighted tax policies.

“The word tragedy isn’t sufficient” to describe the Minneapolis bridge collapse,” he said. “It’s going to hopefully go far far deeper than today’s news. I hope there’s a very thorough investigation into the effects of ‘no new taxes,’ how it affects highway and bridge inspections and how this country and this state are dealing with the effects of a failure to invest in infrastructure.

“To continue the philosophy of no new taxes in America, letting our people die and our infrastructure be ruined, and putting our entire citizenry in jeopardy every time we get in a car – it’s not America and it shouldn’t happen.”