I recently wrote a blog about the discouraging level of debate in American politics these days, and the example I used was a recent Republican debate where a lot more time was spent on a question about contraception than was spent on one about infrastructure. The post was not about the Republicans per se; I talked about how Democrats also use issues like infrastructure to pivot to their main talking points.
I received a thoughtful response to that post and you can find it on this site. The question was a good one: what, exactly, should we ask our representatives to do?
Sometimes the answer may be clear, such as when there is a specific bill that funds a project or something. But in those cases, it is already too late and everyone will look at it through whatever preconceived notions they bring to the table.
A couple of years ago I was part of a group convened by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center to examine infrastructure issues and help chart a path forward. The report got a lot of attention, including being held in the air by President Obama at an infrastructure event. The Miller Center then convened a group two months ago to look at the issue and discuss the answer to the question posed by the commenter on my blog essentially. Turns out, it is a tough nut to crack. And perhaps nowhere more so than on the airport side.
If you wait till an authorization bill comes to the floor, it is too late. If you call your congressman two years before, what exactly do you ask for?
Here is my attempt to answer that.
What people like the person who commented on my blog, and so many others, ought to do is constantly tell their elected and appointed leaders how important infrastructure is to their businesses, their ability to create jobs and to the quality of their lives. This is not a sexy or silver bullet-type answer. But what is missing is a steady drumbeat of people making sure their leaders know how important infrastructure is to the lives of the people they represent. They need to talk about the road, the train, the mass transit, the airport. Tell them that they recognize those things are economic engines. You might live in a wonderful place and have a wonderful workforce. If your community were a car then those things would be the body of the hot red sports car. But infrastructure is the engine. Without the engine, the hot looking car can’t run.
And, when there are occasions when economic opportunity was lost because of a lack of infrastructure, tell that story too. Whether it was congestion or the lack of some form of infrastructure itself, our leaders need to hear these things.
Our leaders often do not understand this, not because they can’t figure it out, but because too many people take infrastructure for granted until there is some sort of catastrophic problem. Our leaders hear all the time about health care and taxes and education and all those things. Almost everyone thinks those things can be made better in some fashion. Our leaders do not often hear about infrastructure in the same way.
I said it is even tougher for airports and here is why. When you drive, you will run over a pothole or a piece of rough road occasionally. That won’t happen on a runway though. So people are lulled into thinking everything is ok. If there are delays there is always someone else to blame, probably air traffic control. No one thinks a runway is going to crack open and swallow a plane. And that is part of the challenge. And that is why we need to find people throughout society, throughout the economy, willing to tell the story of the importance of infrastructure to the economic and social health of our society.
So, we need to create that drumbeat out there, and we need to find drummers. The critical role of infrastructure needs to be part of the discussion. We do not just trade goods and services because of trade agreements or tax policy, though those things play a role. The goods and/or services need to be shipped some place using harbors or airports. We get through our daily lives and all we have to do not just because we have a car, but because we have roads to drive on that connect us to where we want to go. We do not just fly someplace to do business or visit family because the Wright Brothers invented the plane. We do it because we have airports and airways that connect us to where the business and family are.
As I said in the last post, so many infrastructure discussions miss the point, and I have been as guilty of that as anyone at times.
So, my answer to the commenter is to grab a set of drumsticks and help begin this drumbeat. Make sure the press and the politicians hear it. And then when it is time to ask them to vote for some specific bill they won’t have to ask you to explain why.