As a state and a nation, we are working our way through an unprecedented public health emergency and economic crisis. Slowly but surely, we are turning the tide against the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are opening their doors again and people are returning to work.
There is more reason for hope than panic or despair, but at the same time, we must not underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead. To slow the spread of the virus, governments at all levels federal, state and local — mandated an effective shutdown of the private economy. The shutdown came without warning and without a clear sense of how long it would last.
To prevent a complete economic collapse, Republicans and Democrats at the federal level joined forces and took swift action in the form of trillions of dollars of economic aid for the unemployed, struggling businesses and households. This was not a government bailout triggered by a failure in the private economy. This was the government facing the consequences of its decisions and doing something about it.
Leaders of both major parties deserve credit for the speed and scale of this action. But even under the best of conditions, it will likely take years to regain what was lost. Therefore, as the impact of short-term stimulus fades, our government must develop a longer-term strategy to repair the damage that was caused to the private economy — and lay the foundation for stronger and faster growth once the pandemic is finally over.
There are different ideas about what this long-term strategy should look like, of course. But one idea stands head and shoulders above the rest: infrastructure; because it represents an area of government neglect owing to the political inaction or inability of Congress to prioritize critical work in the area of this core government function.
Broad support from the right and left
Fixing our crumbling roads, bridges, transportation systems and other arteries of commerce across our nation is an idea so good, even President Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi agree about it. Before the COVID-19 crisis, President Trump and Speaker Pelosi identified the need for between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in infrastructure investment. More recently, Trump’s opponent in the coming election — former Vice President Joe Biden — has also declared his support for modernizing our infrastructure, “from roads and bridges, to energy grids and schools, to universal broadband.”
What explains the broad appeal? Well, for progressives, infrastructure shows the value of the public sector and how it can provide support for the economy. Meanwhile, for conservatives, maintaining roads, bridges and other critical pieces of infrastructure fits within their vision of limited government, in which the public sector does fewer things, but does them well. And for progressives and conservatives, better infrastructure makes it easier to move people, goods, ideas and services.
Research conducted from very different points of the political spectrum also bears this out. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated 11.4 million jobs would be created across the economy under a $1 trillion infrastructure package. Not only that, the Georgetown study predicts a federal infrastructure program of this scale would “revitalize the blue-collar economy” because about 55% of the jobs would go to workers with a high school diploma or less.
Meanwhile, the Business Roundtable — a coalition of CEOs from the nation’s leading companies — is also in favor of infrastructure investment. “The most compelling rationale for infrastructure investment … is long-term economic growth driven by productivity,” the Business Roundtable concluded in its study on the issue. “These gains are broadly distributed, meaningful in scale and built over time — increasing economic efficiency and prosperity nationwide.” After crunching the numbers, the study concluded: “Investing in infrastructure pays for itself several times over. Every additional $1 invested in infrastructure delivers roughly $3.70 in additional economic growth over 20 years.”
Introducing the infrastructure committee
You won’t find a better argument for increased federal infrastructure investment than the State of Colorado — both in terms of our actual infrastructure challenges and the willingness of people from very different walks of life to work together to find solutions.
Colorado Concern — an alliance of the state’s top business executives — convened the Colorado Infrastructure Committee in early April, during the depths of the COVID-19 lockdown. While we were grateful for the swift passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in late March, it seemed likely that even greater support from the government would be needed over the long haul to overcome the economic impact of rolling shutdowns in Colorado and the rest of the country.
The committee brought together a diverse group of more than 70 business and civic leaders from across the state to explore a critical question: If the federal government moves ahead with a major infrastructure program in response to the COVID-19 recession, how much of the investment could take place in Colorado and what could those investments actually look like?
Despite the polarizing nature of our politics today, we succeeded in bringing together different constituencies that frequently view issues of public policy in very different ways: Business and labor, environmental groups and energy interests, small business owners and university administrators, state and local officials, leaders from urban centers and farming communities, and yes, Democrats and Republicans too.
For example: The committee’s work on water infrastructure was led by Brian Jackson, an official with the Environmental Defense Fund, and Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. Our education work was spearheaded by a former Democratic president of the Colorado State Senate, Peter Groff, and a former Republican House majority leader, Tim Foster, who is the president of Colorado Mesa University.
Immediate, enduring and equitable investmentsFor more than three months, the members of the Colorado Infrastructure Committee immersed themselves in research reports and project inventories, identifying areas where federal infrastructure dollars could put Coloradans back to work and at the same time help us overcome decades of under-investment.
The committee prioritized immediate, enduring and equitable investments in infrastructure to help pull our state out of the recession faster, while also making our economy much stronger and more resilient in the years and decades to come. Then, working with a bipartisan team of consultants and policy advisers, the committee published its findings as an advisory document for state officials and members of the Colorado congressional delegation.
The 148-page report, “Together We Build: How Federal Infrastructure Investments Can Put Coloradans Back to Work,” outlines $16.95 billion to $20.25 billion of recommended investments in the state’s transportation, education and broadband infrastructure, among other key areas of our economy.
Before diving into the specifics, however, it’s worth discussing how the committee arrived at $16.95 billion to $20.25 billion and how these numbers fit into Colorado’s and the nation’s debate over infrastructure needs and other budget priorities.
Unmet infrastructure needs don’t disappear
At the very outset, the Colorado Infrastructure Committee examined the history of federal infrastructure investment in our state — and was disturbed to find a long-term, structural shortfall.
By one critical measure — investments from the Highway Trust Fund — federal funding for Colorado’s transportation infrastructure has persistently trailed behind our share of the U.S. population. From 1999 to 2018, for example, Colorado’s share of national highway funding exceeded our share of the national population only once, in 2014.
Even when the federal government attempted to catch up on unmet infrastructure needs, Colorado was shortchanged again. The biggest public works program in recent memory was the $831 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a measure designed to jolt the U.S. economy out of the Great Recession of 2007-2009. But the Recovery Act did not provide a long-term fix for Colorado’s infrastructure problems or anything close to it.
Our state’s share of the 2009 stimulus was just 0.87% of the national total — roughly half of Colorado’s share of the national population at the time. And despite the public perception of the 2009 stimulus as an infrastructure bill, only a small percentage of the package was actually devoted to infrastructure. Therefore, when the committee examined research from the American Society of Civil Engineers, it found that Colorado’s infrastructure has been stuck in the poor to mediocre category for the past decade, struggling to cope with the demands of our growing population.
This backlog of unmet needs served as the starting point for the Colorado Infrastructure Committee’s deliberations. The $16.95 billion to $20.25 billion of investments identified is not an exhaustive list, nor would it solve Colorado’s infrastructure problems overnight. Instead, the committee limited its recommendations to a population-based share — 1.75 percent — of a roughly $1 trillion investment in federal infrastructure.
The Colorado Infrastructure Committee did not propose exactly how this investment should be made, either as a stand-alone bill or a series of smaller measures. Nor did the committee recommend ways to finance this level of investment, because as the organizers of this effort, Colorado Concern did not ask them to. We wanted — and received — an honest assessment of what a federal infrastructure program in Colorado might look like assuming our elected leaders in Washington, D.C. decided to move in that direction, now or in the future under more normal circumstances.
Return on investment and value for moneySpeaking only for myself — as a former Republican state legislator and the serving president and CEO of Colorado Concern — I am worried about the impact of COVID-19 relief measures on the national debt. I know others on the Colorado Infrastructure Committee who feel the same way. But concern over the debt is no excuse for paralysis when it comes to creating solutions to solve the problem of crumbling infrastructure. It sounds like a slogan, but it’s true: Americans don’t run from challenges — we confront and overcome them.
Therefore, Congress should consider the real and measurable growth dividend that will come from a future infrastructure program — between $3 and $4 in extra economic growth for every dollar invested, based on the Business Roundtable’s estimates.
Using those estimates as a starting point, our leaders in Washington should be able to develop a business plan for fixing our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, i.e. how much money can we responsibly invest, and what kind of return will that investment bring in terms of jobs, wages, business incomes and increased tax revenues. State legislatures and local governments do this all the time when they use general revenues or issue bonds to pay for road construction and other infrastructure projects, and usually under much tighter budgeting rules than you will find in the nation’s capital. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask Congress to do the same.
To be sure, giving a higher priority to infrastructure in the federal budget may involve some tough choices and cuts to less urgent programs. But resetting priorities in this manner is long overdue and the correct response to the moment we face as a country.
Even after we defeat COVID-19, life in America will never return to normal without a strong economic recovery that keeps getting stronger in the months and years ahead. Putting people back to work, while also catching up on decades of under-investment in roads, highways, airports and other infrastructure that Americans use every day, will support this recovery in the immediate, medium and long term. Infrastructure is expensive, no question, but in return the American people will get real value for their money.
What could this mean for Colorado?
Whether the federal government chooses to tackle our nation’s infrastructure challenges in a single sweeping measure, or a series of smaller initiatives, the Colorado Infrastructure Committee identified five major areas of need in our state.
The objective was to achieve the maximum public benefit possible with the broadest support possible from policymakers and other key stakeholders in Colorado. Rather than simply list all the state’s unmet needs, the members of the committee set priorities and made commonsense judgments about how to upgrade Colorado’s infrastructure to better meet the demands of our growing and changing population.
Transportation: The committee identified $7.68 billion to $10.98 billion of proposed infrastructure investments across roads, rail, aviation and transit. These investments are critical because the Colorado economy depends heavily on trade and tourism. For our economy to function, the efficient movement of people and goods is paramount, but every year, this becomes more difficult.
Starting with full funding of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s statewide 10-year plan, (which is a legislative focus of Colorado Concern for the upcoming session of the General Assembly) the committee worked with state and local officials and users of the transportation network on a high-impact inventory of projects for the benefit of motorists, transit riders, cyclists, airport travelers and business owners. The project inventory includes the modernization of I-25, which directly serves roughly 85% of the state’s population, as well as other major arteries such as I-270 and choke points on I-70 like Floyd Hill and Vail Pass. There is also an unprecedented investment in rural roads and support for municipal and county governments to upgrade their road networks and pedestrian, cycling and public transportation systems.
Environment and energy: To support Colorado’s outdoor recreation and tourism sectors, and make critical upgrades to the power grid, the committee identified $3.6 billion of proposed infrastructure investments. They include expanding our state park system, improving wildfire prevention and mitigation programs, supporting grants to local governments for trails, open space and other projects that improve public access to the great outdoors, and bolstering programs that will boost the reliability and flexibility of the state’s electrical infrastructure.
Additionally, shortly after the committee recommended more than $500 million to address the backlog of deferred maintenance on federal lands in Colorado, Congress passed and President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act sponsored by our state’s junior senator, Cory Gardner, which will use billions of dollars of offshore oil and gas revenues to tackle the national inventory of these infrastructure projects.
Water infrastructure: The committee identified $3 billion of infrastructure needs in the water sector. With rapidly rising demand from communities and our continued need for a robust agriculture sector in Colorado, the responsible use of Colorado’s water resources will be critical to economic growth and our standard of living in the decades to come. For this reason, the committee’s two major priorities in this area are critical upgrades to local drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities, and a year of full funding to jump start the Colorado Water Plan, which aims to close an estimated 560,000 acre-feet gap between available water supply and the forecasted level of demand in our state in 2050.
Broadband integration: The committee identified $770 million to support local economies by completing the full rollout of broadband access to every community across the state. Remote learning, telehealth, public safety, telecommuting, e-commerce and entertainment all depend on the ability to send and retrieve data securely at high speeds. Colorado’s Broadband Fund exists to make 100% broadband access a reality — but finding enough funds at the state level has been a persistent challenge. But with assistance from the federal government, our state can close the digital divide in rural Colorado and also in those urban areas without reliable access.
Schools and universities: Education institutions are some of the hardest hit by COVID-19, and for this reason the committee recommended $1.85 billion of infrastructure investments in this sector. The recommendations include new construction and renovation projects across K-12 public schools and the higher education sector, investments in remote learning equipment and teacher training, and construction debt relief for universities to reduce the need for staffing cuts or tuition increases. In addition to the roads, bridges, telecommunications and other infrastructure that support our system of commerce, we need gateways of opportunity for our children and for workers who need new skills.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge before us. And it’s tempting to settle for a bare-minimum recovery from COVID-19 and the recession it has caused. But after all we have been through, and all we have sacrificed, the American people shouldn’t have to settle. When the government asked, the people answered the call. It’s appropriate now for the government to respond in kind.
Our government can do two things at once: put people back to work and deliver the kind of infrastructure that taxpayers deserve. Building better infrastructure of all kinds will help families, businesses and communities recover more quickly from the crisis and prosper in the years and decades to come.
If we encourage, rather than hinder, the movement of people, goods, services, information and ideas across Colorado and the rest of the country, our communities can innovate and grow like never before.
Mike Kopp is the president and CEO of Colorado Concern, a coalition of more than 135 CEOs and senior business and community leaders from across the state. Kopp served as a co-chair on the Colorado Infrastructure Committee and was a co-author of the committee’s July report, Together We Build.