There are many complicated issues where I find myself on one side, but with sympathy for the arguments of those with whom I disagree and regret that I am choosing between competing values.

Increasing federal spending on our transportation infrastructure is not one of them. The case for doing so is not only overwhelming on its own merits, it is also a powerful refutation of President Reagan’s inaugural line, which has become the mantra of an increasingly conservative Republican Party: “Government is not the answer to our problems; government is the problem.”

Some argue there are large trade-offs between the goals of increasing productivity and diminishing inequality. While I believe this is greatly exaggerated, it is a political fact, and the current partisan alignment in Congress means that policies that allow us to bypass this argument are valuable.

A program that pays working men and women decent wages to repair and extend highways, railroads and bridges, thereby improving the speed and diminishing the stress with which people can get to their jobs and their service providers; makers of goods can get the inputs they need; and products can be delivered to consumers advances both goals.

And while it does more than any other single policy to improve the efficiency with which the private sector produces goods and services – and is carried out not by a federal workforce but by employees of private-sector businesses – it is not something that can be done by the private sector alone.

If the problem is how to help businesses diminish the money lost to delays, obstacles and uncertainties caused by the increasing difficulty of getting people and things from points A, B and C to X, Y and Z, then government is the answer. And that means the federal government.

Some conservatives who grudgingly accept the need for collective action to provide the collective good of transportation have argued that this should be left to the states. But a policy of block grants for transportation to the states is not a functional substitute for President Eisenhower’s vision in 1954: the creation of a national highway system suitable for the needs of the integrated national economy that America had become as the 20th century progressed. Subjecting the planning for the efficient flow of people and goods across the country entirely to the uncoordinated decisions of 50 states is exactly the opposite of economic sense.

Productivity would not be the only victim of a decision to abandon the decision of 1787 to replace the Articles of Confederation with a unified national government in this critical area. Eisenhower’s approach offers us an opportunity to make progress on diminishing excessive economic inequality by significantly increasing the number of well-paying jobs available to men and women who do not have advanced degrees and do not have highly developed technological skills. And this isn’t work that can be sent to lower-wage countries. You cannot repair bridges, expand highways or put in place the infrastructure for mass transportation from overseas.

And the social progress we have made over the past 60 years enhances the benefits this will bring. White working-class men will continue to be among the major beneficiaries of greatly expanded construction activity, but unlike the situation in 1954, women and minorities will be part of the workforce too.

But the potential for increased infrastructure spending to provide well-paying jobs to the sector of the population that has been hardest hit by the shift in the distribution of our wealth in recent decades will be undercut if we subject it to the interstate competition that is part of the conscious strategy of those who seek to hold down wages.

The Republican assault on the Davis-Bacon Act – which was sponsored in the 1930s by Northern Republicans trying to protect their citizens from the downward pressure exerted by lower wages in the South – is a clear indication of what will happen if states gain total control over the expenditure of transportation funding.

There is one last aspect of this issue that counters the conservative argument against socially and economically beneficial efforts. We can easily pay for much of the additional spending by cutting back on enormously expensive, counterproductive military interventions. Additionally, an increase of a few cents in the gasoline tax would make sense economically and environmentally. But even in the absence of these policy shifts, higher transportation spending is sound economic policy.

The reflexive argument that any increase in the federal debt is a threat to our well-being ignores a crucial distinction. While I understand the objection to adding to the deficit by borrowing money to spend on consumption – though I believe the negative effect of our current debt level is grossly exaggerated by those whose real objection to these expenditures is philosophical – borrowing money to make long-lasting, productivity-enhancing physical improvements is an entirely different matter. When families, businesses and other private entities incur debt to acquire useful assets, their balance sheets reflect the increase in the latter. Treating federal spending as if funds spent on making the national economy significantly more productive have no offsetting benefit is a grave error.

This is particularly true now when the cost of borrowing is so low. Even when the Federal Reserve System goes ahead with the slight increase in interest rates that is now likely this year, the price the federal government will have to pay to get the money necessary to make our national transportation system more nearly adequate to our economic needs will be far less than the great benefits that will accrue.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

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