Infrastructure Week 2015 Kickoff: A Conversation Between Business and Labor

Monday, May 11, 2015 - 1:15pm

Remarks as Prepared

 

Infrastructure Week 2015 Kickoff:

“Common Understanding: A Conversation with Business and Labor”

 

TAMARA LUNDGREN

Chairman, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors

Washington, D.C.

May 11, 2015

 

Good morning.

I’d like to thank Rich Trumka for his partnership on an issue that unites the business and labor communities, as well as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

Rich is exactly right to call for a long-term extension of the highway trust fund—and he is joined by scores of public and private sector leaders who are doing the same.

There are other looming priorities to contend with as well, including reauthorization of the FAA, full funding for the Water and Resources Development legislation, and progress on the RAPID Act, a sweeping new bill to streamline the permitting process.

These priorities are essential to maintaining, modernizing, and expanding the physical platform of our economy—and they must be swiftly addressed and adequately funded.

Each of these priorities has been perennially beset by short-term funding challenges. While this might suggest that our funding challenges cannot be resolved in a meaningful or sustainable way, it isn’t true. Among all our country’s difficult challenges, this one is self-imposed. We can easily fix it if we have the will to do so.

There is growing support from leaders of key sectors of the economy and from leaders on both sides of the aisle.

There are funding solutions to choose from—whether that is a modest, phased-in user fee increase, private investment through public-private partnerships,  low-cost lending through federal or state programs, or other financing mechanisms.

There is a willing and able workforce, ready to rebuild the country.

And there are the strong incentives of immediate job creation and economic growth.

The time is right. We must push our leaders to take action, and then, we must move on. We must move the conversation forward and expand our thinking.

For so long the focus has been on maintaining, modernizing, and expanding our infrastructure—those are very important goals that we must continue to work to achieve. But they must not be the limit of our aspirations.

We must begin a dialogue about how to make infrastructure part of a national strategy for durable economic growth, greater global engagement, and stronger competitiveness.

Other leading economies are not only having those kinds of conversations, they are making plans and taking steps to implement them. Competitors like China are not thinking about how to patch the next pothole, they are thinking about how to build the next major supply chain.

Many of us in business—particularly companies like mine that operate in global markets—have been watching China’s infrastructure moves with great interest. Beijing is looking very comprehensively at how to help its companies compete, and they are pulling every lever to make that happen.

The Chinese have an ambitious plan to rebuild the Silk Road—both on land and on sea—to create more direct trade and transportation routes to Europe. The initiative, dubbed “One Belt, One Road” by Beijing, is the centerpiece of Chinese President Xi’s foreign policy and domestic economic strategy.

By helping to build out infrastructure in places along the proposed route—like Pakistan, where China just promised $46 billion in infrastructure aid—China stands to benefit in several ways.

The initiative would allow China to make use of its vast industrial capabilities to meet the region’s infrastructure needs. Over the course of its own remarkable development, Chinese companies and workers have ascended the learning curve and are in a strong position to build these roads, bridges, pipelines, rail lines, and ports.

It would also create robust new avenues for getting Chinese goods and services—including a huge domestic oversupply—into regional markets.

These activities would support China’s twin goals of stimulating their slowing domestic economy and helping homegrown companies compete in the region.

If you add it all up, the strategy could help China wield greater influence across the Asian continent, including financial integration and trade liberalization. And, again, infrastructure is the foundation of these expansive goals.

To help pay for it, the Chinese have established a $50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It already has 57 members, including Germany, the UK, and Italy—and plans to expand it to $100 billion. China also led efforts to launch the new BRICS Bank and has established a new Silk Road Fund to promote infrastructure investment. However one feels about the new AIIB and related efforts, it’s hard to deny that they signal the seriousness of China’s plans.

So why am I talking about Chinese infrastructure development at a summit about U.S. infrastructure development? Because competitiveness has long been a talking point in the infrastructure debate in the United States. But it cannot just be a talking point.

The competition is very real. And so are the implications for U.S. businesses and manufacturers as they work to operate at home and compete in global markets.

We need to broaden our thinking, elevate our ambitions, and figure out how to pay for critical investments over the long term. Business, and partners in government and labor, can and should help to expand the conversation and drive it forward.  

Let’s not just ask, how are we going to pay for our system for the next six months or six years? Let’s ask, what do we want our system to do to advance our country’s best interests? How can it be a strategic asset that supports commerce and strengthens competitiveness?

We will be confronted by major infrastructure questions and trends in the near future—everything from competitiveness to technology and all of the implications therefrom.

Let’s be ready to respond to them—or better yet, to lead the discussion and help move transportation and infrastructure policy forward.

Thank you very much. I look forward to our discussion.