Guest Columnist

Finkenauer: Infrastructure essential to Iowans' quality of life

Rep. Abby Finkenauer talks with Maj. Gen. R. Mark Toy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Sixteenth Avenue flood gate in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Federal, state and local leaders came to celebrate a the opening of the new addition to Cedar Rapids' flood protection system. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Rep. Abby Finkenauer talks with Maj. Gen. R. Mark Toy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Sixteenth Avenue flood gate in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Federal, state and local leaders came to celebrate a the opening of the new addition to Cedar Rapids' flood protection system. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Regardless of your political ideology, we can all agree that America’s infrastructure network is essential to our quality of life and to the nation’s economy. Our expansive national network of highways, bridges, tunnels, railways, waterways, and airports is capable of providing all Americans — from those living in the largest cities to those in the smallest towns — with extraordinary freedom of mobility and unprecedented opportunity. Infrastructure provides the backbone of the U.S. economy that facilitates economic growth, ensures global competitiveness, and creates family-supporting American jobs. As we look at ways to grow our economy and improve the environment for business development and job creation, we know that infrastructure is one of the best investments we can make.

Directly tied to that is the need for investment in the hardworking men and women who make our infrastructure possible. We must ensure America’s infrastructure is built with high-quality American materials and that our workers are paid a fair wage. But unfortunately, thanks to a process known as “fund swapping,” that is not always the case.

“Fund swapping” is the process when a State Department of Transportation (DOT) allows local agencies to exchange or “swap” their allocation of Federal transportation funds for State dollars. To be clear, this flexibility can be helpful in situations where local agencies lack the experience of dealing with Federal funds, so allowing a State to pool Federal resources can reduce the risk of non-compliance with Federal standards. However, the downside to “fund swapping” is that it reduces the number of transportation projects that are bound to important Federal requirements that help ensure American workers are paid a living wage and that our infrastructure is built with high-quality American materials. This practice is of particular concern in States where wage or domestic content laws are not as strong as those of the Federal government. That includes Iowa, which passed a bill in 2017 to allow for Federal fund swapping.

This means these projects, more likely located in rural areas, could be built using cheap Chinese steel and by workers who are not members of the local community. As a result, our roads and bridges may not be as safe or last as long as they should, and our neighbors and local contractors will be left out of these job opportunities. We strongly believe we should be building our infrastructure to last, not just to save money in the short-term

That is why we have asked the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) to open an investigation into how fund swapping programs, like the one here in Iowa, are impacting infrastructure projects. The answers that GAO provides will give us a better understanding of how this practice impacts smaller communities, and what might need to be done to ensure high quality materials, projects, and jobs for Iowans.

Our roads, bridges, and highways affect all of us. Reliable, safe infrastructure makes sure parents can take their kids to school, farmers can feed the world, our businesses are able to succeed, and our first responders can get to where help is needed as quickly as possible. Why should we settle for anything less than the highest quality for something that is so important to our daily lives and will remain vital for generations to come? Why would we want anything less than a fair wage and safety protections for our friends and neighbors who are working so hard on these important projects?

We understand the predicament that many rural communities face when it comes to funding some of these projects, and that’s why we believe the Federal government needs to play a role in helping these communities afford their critical, but often complex and expensive projects.

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The bottom line is our infrastructure should be built with high-quality American-made materials and should be built by workers who are paid fairly and protected while on the job. We have a lot of work ahead and a lot of opportunity to provide future generations with quality and safe long-term investments in infrastructure of the future.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer of Dubuque represents Iowa’s 1st District and is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Small Business committees. Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon serves as Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

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