Bob Dagostino can see value in things that have been long neglected and fallen into disrepair.
A few years ago, Dagostino, the owner and president of Dagostino Electronic Services, drove by an abandoned, century-old, 27,000-square foot brick schoolhouse in southeast Pittsburgh. His once small company, which has done electrical work for everyone from NASA to the Pittsburgh Steelers, had begun to outgrow its downtown headquarters, so the “for sale” sign in front of the schoolhouse caught his eye. “Why don't we get a renovated space?” his colleague told him when the two came back by for a tour of the old building, which had sat vacant for 30 years. “No, this is our headquarters,” Dagostino replied.
Dagostino Electronic Services has since turned the schoolhouse into its vibrant new headquarters, and the company has since expanded to about 100 employees. Now, Dagostino has turned his attention to a far larger scale project that has been similarly neglected for decades, but one that holds no less promise for the future: Our nation’s infrastructure.
“Unfortunately, a systemic failure to adequately invest in our infrastructure is taking its toll on the system,” Dagostino told the House Small Business Committee at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill. “We must reverse course and properly fund investments in our transportation infrastructure.”
Dagostino noted that his company counts on infrastructure investment in myriad ways, with his team relying on America’s ground transportation networks to move people and equipment from location to location, but also by contracting on major infrastructure projects, from lighting highways and streets to connecting vital transit and rail switches to installing complex electrical systems at ports and airports.
Dagostino's recommendations for lawmakers included addressing the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, the insufficient funding for which has made it impossible to address the current and future needs of our nation’s transportation system. He also urged lawmakers to pursue solutions to our nation’s growing labor force challenges, which would likely handicap our nation’s ability to build and rebuild the infrastructure we so desperately need, even if sufficient funding was made available.
The Pittsburgh entrepreneur's recommendations are critical. Over the last few recent decades, investment in U.S. transportation has fallen as a share of gross domestic product, while population, congestion, and maintenance backlogs have increased. As a result, America’s infrastructure is in terrible condition, with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has giving our infrastructure a D+ grade.
“Our people and businesses face gridlock, safety challenges, and logistical nightmares,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue wrote recently. “It’s time to rebuild our infrastructure to improve productivity, increase safety, and create jobs.”
In order to turn the tide, we have offered a roadmap for our nation’s leaders, including many of Dagostino's proposals:
- Creating a long-term, sustainable funding source for infrastructure investments
- Passing reforms that increase accountability and expedite regulatory processes
- Taking meaningful steps to address out country’s worker shortage and close the widening skills gap
“In many cities across the country work has become so plentiful that our contractors are challenged to finding enough skilled workers to complete the job,” Dagostino said, later stumping for a stronger focus on preparing young people for jobs in trades and touting the efficacy of apprenticeship programs. “If our nation is to adequately address its infrastructure needs, the workforce shortage must be addressed.”
Dagostino was joined at the hearing by three other small business owners who echoed the same concerns and advocated for many of the very same solutions.
“Fix the Highway Trust Fund by adding 25 cents to the federal motor fuels tax,” Marsia Geldert-Murphey, COO at W. James Taylor, Inc., a small, women-owned roofing company in Belleville, IL. “The current user fee must be raised and tied to inflation to restore its purchasing power. This idea has been led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and would provide a much-needed infusion of $375 billion over ten years and combat the $1.1 trillion investment gap of surface transportation capital needs.”
Bill Schmitz, vice president of sales and quality control at Collins, New York-based Dan Gernatt Gravel Products, added: “I work at the state and local level on infrastructure funding and permitting on a daily basis. These are important conversations for my company, but the federal level is where decisions are made that impact us for years in the future. When Congress delays the enactment of a highway bill or puts off fixing the Highway Trust Fund yet again, it has a huge impact on small businesses, especially in our industry, since we are both a material provider as well as a user of the system.”
Speaking about another critical component of our nation’s infrastructure, Kevin Beyer, the general manager for Farmers Mutual Telephone Company in Bellingham, MN, urged lawmakers to find ways to streamline the permitting process for broadband-related infrastructure projects. “Where the business case for deploying rural broadband can be made, removing barriers to deployment through streamlining of governmental permitting procedures can then promote quicker rural broadband deployment at relatively lower cost,” he told the committee.
At a time when bipartisan consensus seems increasingly rare, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including members of the small business committee, agree that now is the time to make long-overdue investments in our nation’s transportation and infrastructure systems.
“It appears that our current transportation infrastructure system is stuck in a different generation, and unfortunately, our nation’s small business owners often feel these effects the most,” Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), the House Small Business Committee chairman, said during the forum. “Small businesses both create and rely upon our nation’s infrastructure system, and as they create 2 out of 3 new jobs, they will likely be a driving force in repairing our broken system.”
Moments later, Rep. Alma Adams (NC), the small business committee’s ranking Democrat, echoed Chabot: “Small companies dominate many of the sectors that maintain, strengthen and upgrade our infrastructure and transportation networks. From construction to engineering to architecture, small businesses are critical to maintaining infrastructure systems.”
Therefore, “a robust and well-planned investment in our infrastructure would benefit small businesses, both as users of these networks and by creating business opportunities for them,” Adams said.
While focus on the approaching midterm elections may make action on a full-scale infrastructure package an uphill battle this year in Congress, business leaders from companies of all shapes and sizes will continue to relentlessly push for progress – because the stakes are simply too high to keep kicking the can down the road year after year after year.
As Dagostino said at the hearing, “this issue truly affects every sector of our economy.”
About the authors
Former Executive Director, Communications and Strategy
J.D. Harrison is the former Executive Director for Strategic Communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.