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Congressman's view: For good-paying jobs and better communities, it's time to invest in America's infrastructure

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan

America's infrastructure is the cornerstone of our national security and the key to job creation, business development, comfortable lives and quality communities. When we invest in our roads, bridges, airports, waterways, ports, pipelines, rail lines and broadband systems, we invest in ourselves and pay prosperity forward to future generations. So we can't be shortsighted. We need to think big, plan ahead, and make rebuilding our infrastructure the priority it needs to be.

That's what National Infrastructure Week is all about in this coming week.

Duluth is a shining national example of how infrastructure investments ripple through our economy to create good-paying job. It's a point I frequently make to my colleagues on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Former Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox could not have agreed more when I brought him to Duluth to see the remarkable progress we have made.

We do it by working together through job-generating public-private partnerships. My staff and I help secure federal money and participation while local and state officials and private investors plan and provide additional funding and support.

Duluth an 'epicenter for aviation'

Take, for example, the $11.7 million our office already helped secure for the federal share of the first phase of the $43 million Duluth International Airport runway expansion project. Eventually, the federal government will probably pick up about 90 percent of the total cost with state bonding money making up the rest.

That new runway ensures that the 148th Fighter Wing and the 1,000 good-paying jobs it supports will stay right there in Duluth along with 350 more good jobs at AAR.

Meanwhile, Cirrus Aircraft and its 1,115-person workforce also continues to expand — in part, because Duluth has become a nationwide and worldwide epicenter for aviation.

Now add the variety of engineering and support services and related businesses that also benefit, and that initial $11.5 million federal runway investment will lay the groundwork for an annual economic impact of about $41.5 million for the region. You can't beat a return like that.

Port investments paying off

The $10 million federal TIGER transportation grant we championed for the Clure Expansion at the Port of Duluth is another example of infrastructure investments paying dividends. Thanks to improved capacity to handle more Iron Range taconite, along with northern Minnesota timber and manufactured products, the port is continuing to expand the 11,500 good-paying jobs and $1.5 billion in local revenue it already provides the region.

The Port's ongoing success is directly linked to the urgent need for $600 million in improvements to the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. The locks connect Lake Superior with the rest of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Some 4,000 laker ships originating in Duluth and carrying about 13 percent of America's GNP (gross national product) must clear the locks before delivering Iron Range taconite to the steel mills that supply our nation's auto, defense, infrastructure, and consumers-products industries.

We've already secured $1.3 million to launch the project, which ultimately will create some 13,000 good-paying jobs and $2.1 billion in annual business and commerce from Duluth to the Atlantic.

Beyond those benefits, the Department of Homeland Security has determined that renovation and repair at the Soo Locks is vital to our national security. A catastrophic failure would block Great Lakes shipping, costing some seven million good-paying jobs and throwing our nation into another Great Depression. We cannot allow that to happen.

Waste, water systems failing

Yet, for all of the successes we've seen in transportation and infrastructure development here in our region, the challenges we face both locally and nationally are staggering. And the longer we wait to make critical investments, the more expensive and difficult they will become. While the president reportedly is working on a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, the American Society of Civil Engineers has pegged the real need at $3.6 trillion by 2020.

Here in Minnesota, more than half our roads are over 50 years old, and one in 10 bridges is in serious need of repair. Every year, Minnesota drivers spend $1.2 billion to fix their road-damaged vehicles. And good-paying jobs are being lost because Minnesota businesses are spending $232 million every year on higher transportation costs due to highway and railroad congestion that slows production lines and deliveries.

As local officials pointed out during recent meetings I attended in Hermantown and on the Range, many municipal waste and water systems are failing — with serious consequences for people and the environment. State and federal mandates to eliminate poisonous mercury from drinking water are pushing taxpayer-funded resources past their limits. So, with little help currently available from the federal government, I'm working on legislation to establish community grants aimed directly at the mercury problem.

Along with funding needs like these, we've got to think even bigger if we hope to meet our nation's 21st-century transportation and infrastructure challenges.

Rural America requires high-speed broadband to create good-paying jobs, advance education, provide top quality health care, and stay competitive. That's why I introduced the New Deal Broadband Act to pump $20 billion into a plan similar to what President Franklin Roosevelt initiated in the 1930s and 40s to connect rural America to telephone and electrical service.

NLX would bolster business, tourism

America needs mass transit and high-speed rail — so critical to reducing our carbon footprint and addressing climate change. The Northern Lights Express, planned from Duluth to the Twin Cities, is just a small part of a much-bigger picture. Let's get busy constructing a high-speed rail system that connects every small community with every metropolis. Just imagine the millions of businesses and good-paying jobs that would spring up along those routes. Imagine the surge in tourism and commerce nationwide.

Make no mistake, when it comes to infrastructure, America doesn't need to take a back seat to China or anyone else. Our nation is still the richest and most prosperous in the world. After spending $6 trillion on endless wars of choice and so-called "nation building" in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, it's time to put a stop to these terrible wastes of precious blood and treasury. It's time to marshal the political will to reinvest in America and our people — and to make transportation and infrastructure the 21st-century priority they need to be to ensure better lives for all of us.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan represents Minnesota's 8th Congressional District. He is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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