As the “Gateway to the West,” the St. Louis region lies at the crossroads of the nation’s freight network. Our region offers the third largest inland port, four interstates with national access, two international cargo airports, and six Class I railroads. Yet even with these multimodal capabilities to move freight, we have allowed much of our infrastructure to languish. There’s work to be done to keep our region competitive.
Our bistate area is not the only one confronting infrastructure challenges. Across the nation, we have put infrastructure on the back burner, and it shows in disruptive water main breaks, inconvenient flight delays and traffic gridlock. The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, released by the American Society of Civil Engineers, graded our nation’s infrastructure at “D+.” Across 16 categories, the report finds that our infrastructure is outdated and not receiving the funding and maintenance it needs to compete in the global economy.
At both the federal and state levels, elected officials are poised to change the trajectory of our infrastructure. President Donald Trump has frequently stated his interest in infrastructure, and Congress has indicated the issue could be a place for bipartisanship. In Missouri, a newly formed transportation task force will explore how to address our funding needs. And it is part of the motivation behind the St. Louis Regional Freightway, the freight district created through a public-private partnership to improve and optimize our region’s freight transportation network.
But measurable progress and improved infrastructure grades will only be possible if our leaders commit to a bold and clear vision for our infrastructure, beginning with increased, long-term and consistent investment. Just as your car needs routine oil changes and new tires every 50,000 miles, our infrastructure requires regular maintenance and upgrades. Funding that allows not only for new projects but also ongoing operation and maintenance costs ensures we are caring for what we have and making the initial investment last longer.
The Infrastructure Report Card identifies a $2 trillion investment gap from now until 2025. While that number may seem daunting, it is a shared responsibility across the levels of government and the private sector, and each of us as Americans. Every dollar we put in ensures public health and safety, improves our quality of life, and strengthens our economy. Today’s poor infrastructure creates a drag on the economy, and every American family loses $3,400 a year — $9 a day — in disposable income because of aging, inefficient infrastructure.
With greater investment, we need to strategically plan and budget projects, building sustainably and resiliently to fulfill today’s needs and those of future generations. Across the nation, projects that offer long-term economic returns and protect public welfare must be prioritized.
In bistate collaboration, Missouri and Illinois already exemplify this approach, including through a carefully developed list of critical infrastructure projects across the relevant freight transportation modes, all of which will enhance our region and provide impact and efficiency to the freight network.
Among the highest priorities on this list is replacing the Merchants Rail Bridge over the Mississippi River. This 128-year-old structure is a critical linchpin for the national freight network’s success, and long-overdue upgrades are projected to generate more than $456 billion in economic activity over 20 years.
With this project, Missouri and Illinois will be leaders in modernizing our infrastructure to strengthen the economy, not just in our region but nationally, while also demonstrating the power of innovation, both through the use of innovative technologies and public-private financing.
This project has been submitted for a federal FASTLANE grant; if the project is selected, construction could start this year and be completed as early as 2021, demonstrating the expediency that can come from levels of government and the private sector working together to invest in infrastructure.
These are the kinds of solutions we must demand from our lawmakers at all levels of government. Our infrastructure received a “D+” because we failed to invest and maintain. If we continue to kick the can down the road, leaving our infrastructure crisis to future generations, it will only further deteriorate, risking even greater economic consequences.
For a daily investment of about $4 — the price of a nice cup of coffee many of us already pay each day — we could close the infrastructure gap. We can no longer afford to delay; let’s restore our nation and region’s infrastructure to a place of pride and rebuild the foundation of our economy.
Marsia Geldert-Murphey of Glen Carbon is Region 7 director for the American Society of Civil Engineers.