If You Build It --

Article excerpt

Byline: Ezra Klein

Now's the time to invest in infrastructure.

People say the government should be run more like a business. So imagine yourself as CEO. Your bridges are crumbling. Your air-traffic control system doesn't use GPS. The Society of Civil Engineers gave your infrastructure a D and estimated that you need to make more than $2 trillion in repairs and upgrades. Sorry, chief. No one said being CEO was easy.

But there's good news, too. Because of the recession, construction materials are cheap. So is labor. And your borrowing costs? They've never been lower. That means a dollar of investment today will go much further than it would have five years ago--or than it's likely to go five years from now. So what do you do? If you're thinking like a CEO, the answer is easy: you invest.

That's what the administration is proposing to do. But their plan is too modest. The $50 billion bump in infrastructure spending it outlined is only for surface transportation. And as for our water systems, schools, and levees? This is not a time for half measures. It's a rare opportunity to do what we need to do--and save money doing it.

In 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act--the stimulus. Billions went to the Transportation Department to improve our roads, rails, and runways. That money was, in turn, given to the states, which drew up lists of what they needed to do and how much it would cost.

When the Feds checked in on the funds, what they found shocked them. The projects were coming in at about 20 percent less than estimated. The Transportation Department looked at the share that went to the Federal Aviation Administration for runway repairs. The money the FAA thought would complete 300 projects was going to finish 367. The stimulus, the Feds realized, had blundered into an incredible deal: the recession was driven by the collapse of the construction sector. People who built things were now out of work. The materials used for building things were now on fire sale. The companies that organized the building of things were suddenly desperate for jobs. As a result, building things was suddenly dirt cheap.

And it still is. Unemployment in the construction sector is at 17 percent--and that doesn't even count the construction workers who've given up looking for jobs. …