Last week, President Joe Biden traveled to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to promote his infrastructure plan.
“I’m willing to hear ideas from both sides,” Biden said with a bridge badly in need of repair or replacement behind him. “I’m ready to compromise. What I’m not ready to do is, I’m not ready to do nothing. I’m not ready to have another period where America has another Infrastructure Month and it doesn’t change a damn thing.”
Infrastructure is one of those things like education and health care. Everyone acknowledges something needs to be done, but it’s difficult to agree what to do, how much to spend and how to pay for it.
Different regions of the United States have different needs. It’s not easy for someone in Appalachia to determine what New York City, New Mexico or Idaho need in terms of investment in infrastructure. We do have a good idea of what our own needs are, however.
Above ground, our highways, back roads and bridges need serious investment. Biden’s people were wise to place him with a 70-year-old bridge as a backdrop. That bridge is 20 years past its design life. The same can be said for many bridges in Appalachia. For many roads, too.
Below ground, water and sewer service are always a priority in economic development. Roads get the attention, but economic growth is not possible in areas without adequate water supply and wastewater treatment.
Both above and below ground would be where telecommunications lines lay, and that is the Achilles heel for most of Appalachia at this time. It’s difficult to compete in national and international markets with internet speeds that can best be described as woeful.
An old phrase popularized by science fiction author Robert Heinlein goes, “There’s ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Some of these improvements will have to be paid for by their users. Sewer systems will need cost recovery from users. Some new large bridges will need tolls. Another increase in fuel taxes could be necessary to deal with rural roads. Internet service providers will need an adequate return on their investment.
It’s like the situation in West Virginia, where Gov. Jim Justice’s Roads to Prosperity program required increases in taxes and fees for an ambitious program to rebuild some roads and maintain others. It meets some needs, but nowhere near all.
Even if Biden’s infrastructure plan were to pass through Congress untouched, there’s no assurance West Virginia would receive a large benefit from it. The Mountain State has less than 1% of the nation’s population, so its share of federal infrastructure spending could depend more on political clout on Capitol Hill than on demography.
This nation rebuilt much of its infrastructure in the late 1940s and after as it recovered from a depression and a world war. It’s time for us as a nation and for us on the state and local levels to decide how much infrastructure we need to rebuild, what we’re willing to pay and how we’ll pay for it.