Two former Latin American presidents were in town this week; the National Association of Manufacturers came out with a report on Tuesday about the economic importance of infrastructure development; and another group called the effort to develop Interstate 11 between greater Phoenix and Las Vegas a “boondoggle.”
All three events happened independently of one another, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t connected.
Former Mexico President Vicente Fox and former Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla convened a roundtable of business leaders at the Arizona Chamber as part of a daylong series of events in conjunction with the United Peoria Foundation. President Fox opened his remarks by reminding our standing-room-only audience that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The landmark trade pact between Canada, the United States and Mexico has resulted in greatly increased market access for producers across the continent by knocking down protectionist tariffs. But two decades on, NAFTA trade isn’t as efficient as it should be, getting hung up at the borders due to congested ports of entry and slowed by a still underdeveloped highway system.
According to NAM’s report, “Catching Up,” addressing those infrastructure shortcomings could be a boon to the economy. Conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, the study found that a concerted focus on improving the nation’s infrastructure could grow jobs, increase the nation’s gross domestic product and fuel economic output. Unfortunately, our nation’s investment in its highways fell by over three percent per year between 2003 and 2012 and available highway construction dollars continue to dwindle. Meanwhile, as NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons said, “Our competitors are churning out investments in their infrastructure.”
But despite the economic upside to improved transportation infrastructure, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group has dubbed Interstate 11 an unnecessary distraction and financial diversion away from projects like bike lanes and light rail that are more reflective of a traveling public that is decreasingly reliant on cars.
PIRG’s opposition is misplaced. This shouldn’t be a debate over whether to fund more buses or fund highways. A long term transportation strategy needs both, and it has to reflect the ability to move freight safely and efficiently from point A to point B. Right now Phoenix and Las Vegas are the two largest metro areas not connected by an interstate, hamstringing both areas’ economic development prospects and slowing travel. The debate shouldn’t be a partisan one, either. Arizona’s congressional delegation supports I-11’s federal designation and has even formed a Congressional I-11 Caucus.
Transportation planning is about the future. How will we meet the needs of the Arizona of 20, 30 or 50 years from now? The thought just a decade ago of investing millions to construct the Loop 303 in the West Valley might have earned snickers, but as big distribution centers pop up to take advantage of the new highway linkages, we’ve seen the job growth that can result from smart planning.
Without I-11, our state is poised to fall short of the vision articulated by Gov. Jan Brewer and the Arizona Commerce Authority to improve the state’s production capacity and grow our manufacturing profile. In manufacturing, time is money. We can’t have a world-class manufacturing environment if our transportation system is known more for its congestion and bottlenecks than its ability to get products quickly to market.
The completion of I-11 might be years away, and securing the dollars to fund its construction will require tough choices, but its development is necessary not only to link two growing cities in the west but to develop a north-south trade route between Canada and Mexico that will mean jobs for Arizona.
Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry is committed to advancing Arizona’s competitive position in the global economy by advocating free-market policies that stimulate economic growth and prosperity for all Arizonans. http://www.azchamber.com/.