WASHINGTON (PAI) – AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka is adding reconstruction of U.S. infrastructure – and creation of tens of thousands of well-paying jobs doing so – to the federation’s priority list.
Reeling off statistics and relating them to crumbling roads, structurally deficient bridges and lack of new development, he told a Jan. 14 telephone press conference the federation would lobby heavily for Congress to approve new construction money.
The nation needs “opportunities and challenges to create good jobs and a basis for prosperity,” he said. And he said “I don’t know if any” political and governmental actors, including the Obama administration, Congress, business, and labor, “have focused adequately on infrastructure.”
“We’ll talk about it to anyone who will listen” to labor’s campaign for trillions in new infrastructure investment, he declared.
Trumka made his comments just a week after the House Transportation Committee opened hearings on whether lawmakers should write a new mass transit-highway funding bill this year. The current funding bill has just over a year to run.
Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley urged lawmakers to act. “Increased, and more flexible transit funding, enhanced transit health and safety efforts, expanded paratransit service, concerns with outsourcing transit systems, and workforce development are key elements to a comprehensive transportation bill,” he testified.
Hanley said more funding for mass transit would help a nation with an expanding urban population. He noted that metropolitan Phoenix, in 30 years, will have a population equal to that of New York City – minus its suburbs – today, for example.
“If you think the petty political trick that caused a traffic jam in Jersey was bad, wait until you see the traffic jams across America as urban populations burst at the seams,” Hanley warned. “Generals fight the last war, legislators appropriate for the last demographic trend and we need to start investing now for the smart public transit that will enable our communities to run.”
Trumka added highways, high-speed rail, railroads, airports, clean energy, modernizing the U.S. electrical grid and-if it meets environmental standards – even the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline to the infrastructure agenda.
“If that pipeline can be environmentally safe, there’s no reason it can’t be in the mix,” he said of the pipeline from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast.
Construction unions campaign for Keystone, which will be built under a project labor agreement with several building trades unions. On environmental danger grounds, several other unions, led by the Transport Workers and National Nurses United, oppose it.
Trumka chose high-speed rail as his example of another impact of the lack of infrastructure investment: U.S. trailing other big trading nations. He noted that he just got back from a trip to China that showed him the infrastructure contrast between the world’s two largest economies.
Both nations made a commitment to high-speed bullet trains, Trumka noted. The U.S. “chose austerity” in 2010 and has yet to build a single mile, he lamented. “But now China’s high speed trains carry as many passengers as the U.S. airlines system.”
His conclusion? The U.S. is falling behind in infrastructure investment vital to keep the economy going. “To compete with China, India, and Germany, we have to invest, but our meager federal investment isn’t enough,” Trumka declared.
Despite Trumka’s and Hanley’s urgings, lawmakers may balk. The GOP-run House, for example, approved a 1,000-page $1 trillion money bill to keep the government going through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. It zeroes out federal funds for high-speed rail, and restores airport funding to the level of two years ago, but no more.
And Trumka admitted business may have more clout on the infrastructure issue than the nation’s unions, though he quickly added that infrastructure is one area where the two work together legislatively.
“Business is the key to breaking the logjam” in Congress “on climate, energy, and jobs,” he said. “But it’s time to act, to make it happen and to make it happen now.”
Photo: Artist-rendered picture of California high-speed rail train. Transportation unions say that high speed rail is of paramount importance to the country. Photo courtesy of California High Speed Rail Authority.