Tribune Editorial: Infrastructure is a lot more than concrete and steel

Utah Republicans who pretend that broadband, the power grid, transit and housing aren’t basic are living in the past.

(Doug Mills | The New York Times) President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 response and the state of vaccinations, from the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, on the White House grounds in Washington, Monday, March 29, 2021. Biden appeared in western Pennsylvania Wednesday, March 31, 2021, afternoon to unveil his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, a far-reaching proposal that he will seek to pay for with a substantial increase in corporate taxes.

The idea that public spending only counts as “infrastructure” if you can drive a big truck over it is without merit, and Utah Republicans who make that argument are just embarrassing themselves. And us.

There is a great deal of room to pick and argue over the details of President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, how its apportioned, how it would be paid for, whether it has too much of this and too little of that.

But the attack from Utah’s Reps. Chris Stewart, Burgess Owens, among others, that the package isn’t really infrastructure because only a small portion of it would go for highways and bridges is absurd on its face. Unless nothing has been invented in the last 150 years.

Other responsible people and groups in Utah should, and probably will, stand up to support some version of a real infrastructure package for the same reasons Biden and congressional Democrats are proposing it.

In the short term, it would pump all that much-needed cash into circulation, providing jobs for contractors and designers and engineers and construction workers and food truck operators, all of whom would pay taxes and circulate their income through the rest of the community.

In the long term, it would also leave behind the various new and improved supportive structures for other enterprises — public, private, nonprofit — that would return the federal investment many times over, to the Treasury and to virtually every one of us.

Infrastructure is what we build together so that each of us individually can better do whatever it is we need to do. Create jobs. Do jobs. Get to those jobs with less wasted time and a smaller carbon footprint. Go to work without worrying about who will care for the elderly, disabled and children while you’re there. Go to work with people who have been fully educated. Go to work without the stress of worrying whether you can afford the rent, whether there will be fresh water for everyone and whether the power will stay on.

Large investments in public infrastructure is what great Americans such as Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln were keen on. Yes, in their day it was roads and bridges and canals, because those were the things that were needed to bind the nation and make all forms of communication, migration and commerce possible.

Today, it is difficult to imagine doing any kind of creative work, any kind of economic growth or individual achievement, without someone building the 21st century equivalent of the Erie Canal and the Transcontinental Railroad. At a minimum, those structures include a reliable and clean electric grid, safe and efficient public transit, broadband internet connections that are virtually universal, affordable housing and, oh, yes, highways and bridges.

Many of the same Republicans who oppose Biden’s plan are also heard to warn of the rise of China as a political and economic rival. If they really mean that, they should understand that we should not allow the democratic nations of the world to fall behind China’s historic infrastructure boom, within its own borders and in nations where it seeks influence.

The administration’s state-by-state assessment of needs that its plan would meet notes that Utah alone has more than 2,000 miles and 60 bridges that are in dire need of repair, as well as slow and aging public transit facilities, $4.4 billion in unfunded needs to maintain our drinking water system and an internet market where more than half of us have access to only one, presumably overpriced, broadband provider.

Biden would pay for all of this with an increase in the federal corporate tax rate, boosting it from the Trump-era 21% to 28%, still appreciably less than the previous rate of 35%. That’s hardly the total overhaul of the federal tax system that we ought to be working on, but it would pay the bills.

Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney is among many who object to any tax hike, arguing, perhaps reflexively, that it would put a break on the economy just as it is beginning to recover from the pandemic shutdown.

Maybe. Or maybe the economic stimulus provided by all that infrastructure spending would more than overcome the burden of slightly higher taxes. Taxes that would be aimed at avoiding the usual Republican objection to paying for it all with higher deficits.

Utah, and the rest of the nation, has a huge lift before it to catch up to the challenge of creating a 21st century civilization that can help individuals and businesses reach their potential. We should be getting to work.