Creative thinking needed on infrastructure: Rep. Mike Kelly

Jun 26, 2019

Communities throughout America, including Erie, would greatly benefit from this plan.

In 1964, I walked into the visitors’ locker room at Academy High School in Erie on a Friday night to suit up for one of western Pennsylvania’s greatest traditions, a high school football game. Fast-forward to 52 years later to 2016 when I walked into that same locker room as a member of Congress.

While the name on the building had changed to Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy, the locker room looked much the same, except that the physical condition had deteriorated. It is in desperate need of renovations long put off by strained budgets. I went back to Washington, D.C., with a question: How can we improve our public buildings and other infrastructure without raising taxes?

The result was the Public Buildings Renewal Act, a plan I authored with Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, which would permit state and local governments to access private activity bonds (PABs) to finance critical infrastructure projects for qualified public buildings. In simple terms, our bill makes private-public partnerships to upgrade schools like Collegiate Academy, hospitals, courthouses, universities and police stations possible.

As I say often, there aren’t Republican roads, Democratic bridges, or independent buildings. Everyone on the political spectrum from President Donald Trump to Speaker Nancy Pelosi knows we need to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. Acknowledging that is the easy part. Anyone can see that just by looking outside. The harder problem to solve is how to pay for these upgrades and improvements, which requires outside-the-box thinking from all of us. We need ideas to move the ball forward. Right now, the House Ways and Means Committee has numerous bills ready for consideration, including the Public Buildings Renewal Act.

I authored another plan last year, this time with Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Missouri, called the Generating American Income and Infrastructure Now (GAIIN) Act, which would provide revenue to pay for infrastructure in low-income communities and reduce the national debt. It sounds too good to be true, but I’m glad I can say that it isn’t. Here’s how it would work: Federal agencies hold more than $2 trillion in non-performing debt and lease assets that, if sold, could raise a significant amount of money.

Upon learning this, I worked with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the conservative House Freedom Caucus to produce the GAIIN Act, which would require the Department of Agriculture to sell its distressed assets on the open market. The Treasury Department would then distribute half of the money to communities below the poverty line for infrastructure projects, and the other half to pay down the national debt. Combined, that improves the economic viability of communities in need and our entire nation. Communities throughout America, including Erie, would greatly benefit from this plan. We’re currently working on minor changes to last year’s bill before re-introducing it in this Congress.

We consider the revival of America’s forgotten cities and towns to be a moral, fiscal and economic imperative — one that can uniquely unite conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats. This is truly a win-win. We can create jobs and infrastructure in areas that most need it without raising taxes on hardworking Americans while paying down the debt. Who can’t get behind a plan like that?

Public buildings, drinking water and transportation infrastructure require upgrades, and so do our ports. We know very well that the Port of Erie is critical to western Pennsylvania’s economy, and it requires investment. That is why I co-authored the Full Utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Act. Over several decades, the trust fund has had plenty of money to dredge and upgrade our aging ports, but prior Congresses have used the money for other purposes. The bill would unleash those dollars and ensure that America’s ports are ready and able to receive cargo and cruise ships for decades to come and aren’t forced to “light load” in sand-filled harbors. This bill was passed by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unanimously and is ready for consideration on the House floor.

As Congress works to produce a broad infrastructure package, I will fight to include these plans and others in the deal. We must be creative to get this done for the Americans who have waited decades for their elected representatives to responsibly use their hard-earned money, taken through taxes, for projects that benefit them.

China, India and other countries have overtaken our lead in infrastructure planning and are making robust investments as their economies and populations grow. We must do the same. If we don’t put our foot on the gas and retake our global leadership, we may find ourselves unable to compete in the global economy. That’s a grim prospect, so let’s take ourselves off auto-pilot, turn the wheel and rev the engine in a new direction that will make America’s infrastructure the envy of the world again.

Mike Kelly, a Republican from Butler, represents the 16th Congressional District, which includes Erie and Erie County.


This op-ed was published in the Erie Times News on June 26, 2019.