American roads and bridges are rotting. Its airports are decaying. And its most important inland waterway is falling apart.
The very arteries that pump life into the U.S. domestic economy cannot suffer continued governmental negligence. And, as support grows for bolstered spending on infrastructure, it's imperative that congressional delegations from Iowa and Illinois form a bipartisan coalition that ensures the Mississippi River isn't forgotten.
Government spending on infrastructure reached an all time low this year, a paltry 1.4 percent of economic output, says the U.S. Census Bureau. Thirty-four states spent less on roads, bridges, rail and locks than in 2007 when adjusted for inflation. Federal spending, too, has been trapped in a holding pattern for years, amid lawmakers' unwillingness to spend cash on anything that can't be used as a military weapon. State and federal officials, alike, have yet to come up with a viable replacement for the gas tax, which is failing due to increasingly efficient vehicles.
All the while, the average age of an American road surface increased five years between 2000 and 2015, from 23 years old to 28.
And, locally, locks on the Mississippi River are hugely out of date. They're crumbling in too many instances. And, for more than a decade, a plan to increase capacity along the Mississippi has fallen victim to congressional negligence. Not only are the locks old, they're too small to accommodate the massive loads that are moving grain and coal throughout middle America. This is, in a very real sense, a drag on the economies of Iowa, Illinois and Louisiana.
President Donald Trump has long touted an amorphous $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Trump is a deeply flawed, even dangerous occupant of the White House. His rampant disdain for democratic norms and checks on his own power can be construed as nothing but a legitimate threat to many constitutional principles and ethical maxims. That said, even Trump gets it right -- at least in principle -- every so often. And that's why his less-than-specific infrastructure plan enjoys a semblance of bipartisan support in Congress.
But, it's those very members of Congress that have to turn a shapeless campaign pitch into something with legitimate weight. In short, finding the cash over the next decade will make or break any movement on the issue.
So-called tax reform is the giant, drooling gorrilla in the room, after all. No new, large-scale spending plan can be drafted until an overhaul of the federal tax code is complete, say leaders of Congress' ruling GOP. But, like health care, rewriting tax code is dangerous territory. That's why widespread tax reform hasn't happened in decades. In this instance, the president's call for slashing corporate rates, combined with a desire among rank-and-file Republicans to cut top-tier rates, are especially problematic. Even the most conservative projections say such moves would cost trillions over the next decade. And Trump's white-hot spot with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn't bode well for future legislative success.
All that said, the nation's crumbling infrastructure is a potential harbinger for economic disaster. It's bad for the people. It's bad for business. That's why pro-industry advocacy groups this month toured federal lawmakers around the near ancient locks and dams around the Quad-Cities.
Those very groups, years ago, supported a boost to taxes on diesel fuel to fund bolstered river infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, the idea stalled in Congress. It should be immediately resurrected, a potentially significant source of revenue that would specifically benefit the river network.
But, at the broader scale, it's imperative that congressional delegations from Illinois and Iowa, regardless of party, band together with peers from Minnesota and Missouri and insist that the Mississippi River is a significant part of any infrastructure plan. And they should demand infrastructure gets addressed, regardless of the fate of tax reform. Here is an issue in which leadership from the likes of relative newcomers Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, could prove that partisan divisions aren't all consuming.
Political differences aside, the well-being of the locks and dams on the Mississippi River is one place where the region must speak with a unified voice.