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NSSGA’s Johnson addresses infrastructure at Roundtable

By |  August 9, 2021

INFRASTRUCTURE

P&Q: Infrastructure has been a hot topic during the first months of the Biden administration, but it’s clear both sides are very far apart in getting a deal done. We saw the president introduce a multi-trillion bill that contains some infrastructure in it. We’ve also seen Senate Republicans introduce a bill that’s more pointedly geared toward ‘traditional’ infrastructure – roads, bridges and highways. Is there a middle ground that can be found to ultimately get a deal done? What’s the latest on the timeline of a deal? And how optimistic are you about a big, impactful infrastructure bill coming to fruition?

JOHNSON: I am very optimistic. I think good things are going to happen. I think we’re going to have a historic investment in infrastructure.

You’re seeing some critical mass come together around what I would call ‘traditional infrastructure,’ especially service infrastructure that I think gives us a path forward. For the first time in my eight years in this industry, I’m seeing bipartisan efforts to move forward with a serious infrastructure bill.

I think you’re going to see something, if not by August – so members of Congress can go home and campaign on what they did for their districts – you’re going to see something in September when they come back from their August recess after they’ve heard from their constituents about it. It pulls them and they know they need to do it.

Congress works at its best when there’s no more easily available, less difficult option in front of them. They know they’ve got the expiration of the FAST Act in September. They know they’ve got to reauthorize at least highways. I think they’re going to take a bigger bite. And they’ll pass a big infrastructure bill in a bipartisan way sometime this summer. They’ll be signing the law in September. So that means we’re all going to need to get to work.

P&Q: Regarding infrastructure, are we operating in a world now where traditional infrastructure (i.e., roads, bridges, transit, ports and airports) has to compete with new or alternate infrastructure? Broadband is a big new one, but there’s also a lot of discussion on electric vehicles and pursuing greener infrastructure. Is this the new normal for us when talking infrastructure?

JOHNSON: It’s roads, it’s bridges, it’s ports, it’s rail, it’s airports, it’s waterways – that is traditional infrastructure. And without a doubt, there is a need to invest in that.

The Chinese are kicking our butts in infrastructure investment. We can argue about the quality of it all day long. But the fact of the matter is, they’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars – not in one plan, but every year in China and abroad. They’re building infrastructure all over the world as a way to expand their markets. We’re playing checkers sloppily, and they’re playing chess at a high level with infrastructure.

We’re 13th in the world now in the quality of our infrastructure. You cannot stay the No. 1 economy in the world if you continue to be 13th, or worse, in infrastructure. It’s your economic circulatory system. Goods and services can’t move efficiently. Costs are added that we frankly can’t take in our economy right now.

When you think about traditional infrastructure, I think that’s where you find a lot of bipartisan support. When you look at public polling, people tend to define it and support investment in that traditional infrastructure. What the president’s talking about is what, frankly, the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party defines as ‘human infrastructure.’

They say that an infrastructure bill will create jobs. We know that. They say that an infrastructure bill will grow GDP. What they believe is that you have to couple that traditional infrastructure investment with human infrastructure investment if you’re really going to see the jobs benefit.

Now, we can debate that all day long. I’m not sold. Most members of Congress aren’t sold. The public’s not sold on this. But the fact of the matter is they believe that if this is going to be a jobs bill, you have to also take care of people’s ability to take care of their aging parents; you have to take care of people’s ability to take care of their kids. So, they’re looking at all these things as additional-needs investment to build the kind of jobs economy they believe we need going forward.

I just don’t see that the critical mass is there in Congress to support that broad definition of infrastructure right now. If it happens, the Democrats are going to have to drive it through on the party-line vote and reconciliation and, again, the parliamentarian will narrow that.


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