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Editorial: Time is right for infrastructure bill to help nation rebuild and repair

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Road work

Roadwork is just one need that could get a boost from a federal infrastructure bill. File/Staff

President-elect Joe Biden certainly will have a lot on his plate when he is sworn in come January, but it’s not premature to hope that among his first big legislative initiatives will be a long-deferred bill to help rebuild and repair the nation’s infrastructure, including roads, transit systems, dams and airports.

Not only would such an initiative produce needed jobs and economic activity in the short run, but the resulting work also would lay a foundation for the nation’s future growth. And we expect an infrastructure initiative could attract unifying, bipartisan support that the country sorely needs.

Infrastructure doesn’t just mean roads and bridges. Part of any bill’s focus should include resiliency improvements such as expanding drainage systems, modernizing the electric grid and bolstering storm defenses such as sea walls.

Charleston has critical drainage and flood prevention needs that will require a variety of funding sources, as well as transit, bike and pedestrian improvements that haven’t kept pace with growth. A federal infrastructure bill could provide a much-needed boost to those efforts.

President Donald Trump periodically has backed federal efforts to invest in the nation’s infrastructure, as have congressional Democrats, but the proposals have bogged down in politics. There also is the issue of how any ambitious infrastructure bill would fit into the federal budget and deficit picture, which has worsened substantially and will necessitate difficult choices.

Still, the basic question remains of whether the federal government, which has underwritten so much of the cost of the nation’s infrastructure, is keeping pace not only with future needs but also the cost of maintaining it.

Most say it’s not. The American Society of Civil Engineers has issued a report card on the state of the nation’s infrastructure for more than two decades. Its latest grades were mostly Ds.

Emily Feenstra, the society’s managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives, says the report card is designed to take an “out of sight, out of mind” issue for most Americans and make it real. A new report card will be issued in March.

“We’ve been kind of in that C-D range for some time now. It’s a reflection again that not much has changed in terms of the level of investment we have in our infrastructure,” she told us. “The fact is that it’s aging. Some of the categories are ticking down into the D-minus grade range, which we characterize as near failing. ... We’re not a Third World country, and that’s not what we’re saying, but to compete in a global economy — to thrive and attract business and provide a good quality of life — we’re not where we should be as the United States.”

It’s not all been bad news. While the federal government has largely sat on the sidelines, state and local governments have not; 37 states, including South Carolina, have raised their gas tax since 2015, and the nation’s bridges rate one of the better grades in the report card (a C-plus). South Carolina is near the national average, with 9% of its bridges in poor condition, Ms. Feenstra says. Also, ports in South Carolina and across the nation have undergone upgrades and are doing relatively well.

For the first time, the society’s 2021 report card will rate the nation’s stormwater infrastructure, a sign of the increased awareness of this critical need. Any infrastructure bill also should provide funding and support for the belated recognition that rural areas need better internet service and speeds.

After the election was called for Mr. Biden, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg expressed hope that Washington will do more to help the city with its key priorities, including flooding, traffic congestion and affordable housing. Leaders in other cities surely have different priorities, which brings up another key point: Any federal infrastructure initiative should provide some flexibility to help state and local governments work on what they see as their biggest needs. Congress and the White House should welcome this opportunity to work together on such a worthwhile bill.

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