Public-private collaboration sought for infrastructure upgrades

Ed Mortimer, vice president of transportation and infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, advocates for nationwide infrastructure upgrades at the annual State of Transportation in the Commonwealth event, sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and held Aug. 7, 2019. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made shoring up the nation’s infrastructure its No. 1 priority and is favoring a host of measures, including a higher federal fuel tax, to make that happen.

“There is no one entity that can handle all our infrastructure needs,” said Ed Mortimer, the chamber’s vice president of transportation and infrastructure, at the Annual State of Transportation in the Commonwealth event on Aug. 7 at the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s Tysons headquarters. “It really comes down to working together at the federal, state and local [levels] and encouraging the private sector to join as well.”

Mortimer advocated for infrastructure modernization to provide mobility options suitable for the 21st century’s economy, which has begun shifting from brick-and-mortar stores to an e-commerce environment. Many U.S. highways were built in the 1950s and water systems throughout the country are 100 years old, he said.

The two primary objectives of the federal government are to provide for the nation’s defense and interstate commerce, Mortimer said. The federal government has not done its part in recent years to improve the nation’s infrastructure, he said.

“What happens at the federal level is a reflection of what’s happening around the country,” he said.

The nation’s economic success will depend on its ability to move goods and services faster and cheaper. The World Bank recently rated the United States’ infrastructure tenth in the world, Mortimer said.

The U.S. chamber’s goals, which may be viewed at www.uschamber.com/lets-rebuild-america, advocate for:

• An increase of 5 cents per year for five years in the federal fuel tax, which has not been increased since 1993. Doing so would raise an estimated $394 billion over the next decade, chamber officials said.

Collecting the federal fuel tax from 110 retailers is far simpler than attempting to do so with more than 200 million drivers, Mortimer said. While the increased tax rate would cost the average American about $112 more per year, U.S. drivers on average pay about $600 per year because of vehicle repairs and other problems stemming from poor roads, plus about $1,000 more annually because of sitting in traffic, he said.

“I’m not a math whiz, but that’s a pretty good rate of return,” Mortimer said.

• More options for public-private partnerships to help localities upgrade their infrastructure. Virginia already has a big leg up in this area, Mortimer said.

• Speeding up projects by streamlining the permit process.

• Improving workforce-development efforts, including apprenticeship programs, to produce employees skilled enough to work on infrastructure projects.

Mortimer was hopeful during the 2016 presidential campaign because both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were hawking major infrastructure plans. Not much has happened in the election’s aftermath, he lamented.

“We don’t see that grand bargain happening,” he said.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce officials are focusing their efforts on the U.S. Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee’s $287 billion infrastructure proposal that among other things will focus on bridges.

The plan passed that committee unanimously and now will head to the Finance Committee, which would have to determine a way to finance it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated a willingness to bring the measure to the Senate floor, possibly in October, Mortimer said.

“We see real potential here to do something big and do something bold,” he said.

Mortimer marveled at the success so far of Metro’s Silver Line, but said infrastructure partners also needed to be fostered to ensure the region’s continued vitality.

Not everyone has been happy with the results achieved so far, but the community and residents are better for those efforts, Mortimer said. Northern Virginia is not the only region plagued by traffic congestion, he added.

“We can look at a lot of other urban centers in the country with the same issues, the same challenges, the same opportunities,” he said.

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