State needs strategic investment in infrastructure

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A few years ago in Gig Harbor, where I live, there was a building moratorium due to inadequate sewer capacity. Our options were limited: stop new development, stop flushing (which is gross), or expand capacity. During a tenuous time in our economy, our community couldn’t see any private-sector economic development move forward until the city expanded its wastewater treatment facility.

If we’re going to get our state’s economy out of “Neutral” and into “Drive,” we can’t see that type of disruption happen in Gig Harbor, Vancouver, or any other city in our state. Though they may get fewer headlines than other topics discussed in Olympia, we know this: Strategic investments in infrastructure matter.

As someone who works in economic development, I’ve seen first-hand how strategic investments in sewer systems, college buildings, and other critical infrastructure can spur job creation, increase our capacity for economic development and make lasting contributions to our competitiveness.

With that in mind, as vice chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, I am working with my Republican counterpart to develop a capital investment proposal focused on making investments that both put people to work this year and lay the foundation for economic growth over the long term.

For example, with exports accounting for roughly one-third of Washington’s economic growth this decade, we propose investments in port- and export-related infrastructure that can improve the ability of Vancouver and other ports throughout our state to expand their industrial activities and enhance their ability to get products overseas.

In addition, investing in construction trades programs such as those at Lower Columbia College in Longview and in facilities and equipment in other higher education institutions throughout our state not only puts folks to work now, it improves the state’s ability to train more people for jobs in high demand from employers.

As we develop this proposal, there are many other opportunities. We know, for example, that in Southwest Washington, local governments want help treating stormwater -- in Battle Ground, Camas, Vancouver and other parts of Clark County. These investments will not only protect our environment, they will put folks to work now and, in some cases, create opportunities for new economic development.

The state can make these investments this year -- without adding to its general obligation debt (which competes directly with paying for services like education) and without new taxes. The bipartisan proposal we’re developing along with our colleagues in the House would use essentially the same revenue-bonding method used to pay for road construction.

Time to act is now

We propose financing economic development and training infrastructure and environmental cleanup projects now, paying for them over time by dedicating a small portion of future revenues from existing taxes that are currently used to fund such projects on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Most of these investments are planned for the near-term, so why do this now? Two reasons. First, currently it’s cheap to build. Making these investments this year, not later, enables the state to take advantage of low costs for labor and materials, low interest rates, and in some cases, federal dollars that are available now.

Second, the construction industry is hungry for work. While the overall unemployment rate is about 9 percent, construction contractors have laid off roughly 35 percent of their workforce. In some crafts and trades in some areas of our state, unemployment is as high as 50 percent.

These are real small businesses, real families, real workers who can be put to work through these investments.

By taking a long-term approach and by taking a responsible approach to financing, Washington can help get folks back on the job and make common-sense investments that will provide greater opportunities for communities statewide for years to come.

Derek Kilmer, D–Gig Harbor, is vice chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee and works as vice president of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.