To revive economy, think infrastructure

It worked after the Great Recession and it can work now

THAT WE LIVE in uncertain and unprecedented times is a fact that does not need to be impressed on anyone. Over the past six weeks, it’s been forced upon all of us.

That there’s nothing we can do about it is not a mindset into which any of us should fall. Amid the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 crisis, we need to rethink fundamental assumptions about the way we operate and, if we do, we can grow stronger in the face of adversity.

Now is the time for the federal government to continue to help act with the sweep and authority that only the federal government can. We, as a country, have met historic challenges and undertaken massive projects before. Now is the time for us to take a page from our parents’ and grandparents’ playbooks and move forward in bold fashion. Now is the time to confront our own generational responsibility.

The country needs a sweeping infrastructure program to help revive our economy. Not only that, but even before this time of crisis and alarm, the country had an open, obvious need for an infrastructure program to support what had been a healthy economy.

When I served as lieutenant governor in Deval Patrick’s administration, we faced an economic and budgetary crisis during the fallout from the Great Recession that began in 2008, the year after we took office. The current crisis is wreaking even greater havoc on our economy.

With cooperation from the federal government, Massachusetts was able to emerge from the Great Recession more quickly and in better shape than nearly any other state. How? Through preparation, good government, and smart investments in our regional economies across the Commonwealth. By partnering with the federal government, we made significant downpayments on infrastructure projects that continue to pay dividends today.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which became law in 2009 under President Obama’s signature, unleashed $831 billion in economic stimulus over 10 years. The law enabled Massachusetts to pay for $7.5 billion in project awards. Our current needs have revealed themselves to be far more severe, but the model should remain. We need dramatic federal investment that will further leverage a commitment of state dollars.

Congress should also reinstitute the time-honored practice of earmarking. Far from the strawman “wasteful spending” criticized by some politicians and pundits, earmarks allow local direction of taxpayer dollars. Mayors and city and town managers, working with residents and organizations like our local chambers of commerce, know where this money can be used most effectively to strengthen a town, city, or regional economy.

Fortunately for Massachusetts, we have well-positioned members of Congress, like our delegation dean and House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, and my own Congressman, House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, who can help pull these levers.

And there are pent-up levers to pull. As much of the country has been converted to a “work-from-home” economy, has there ever been a more salient reminder of the importance of universal broadband in today’s world? We need to continue to aggressively build out that infrastructure.

As our economy undergoes the first shock waves of the COVID-19 body blow, who would argue against expediting and following through on South Coast Rail, for which Gov. Charlie Baker broke ground last July? Why would we not “prime the pump” for an economic recovery by moving ahead with West Station and East-West Rail that would connect Boston with Worcester and Springfield and Pittsfield, finally knitting together the framework for commuters across the state? Our fishing and other maritime industries also have long infrastructure needs neglected by the federal government. These industries play a huge role in our supply chain and culinary sectors, and it benefits us all to make strategic investments to correct these inequities.

Additionally, by having the Environmental Protection Agency return federal reimbursements from the current 10 percent to municipalities to 90 percent for the cost of modernizing our water and sewer infrastructure, we can prevent environmental and health catastrophes like the one that occurred in Flint, Michigan, from happening in other places and put Americans across the country to work.

All of these are projects that would reap long-term economic and social benefits. But they are also urgently needed in the short term, to resuscitate a reeling economy and to mend a supply chain that has been, temporarily, broken.

None of us has encountered an economic challenge that moved this swiftly and dramatically. To counter it, we need to move swiftly and dramatically. We must be strategic about where we direct the funds that will put us back on course.

This is not a Red State-Blue State moment. It’s an American moment, summoning us to rise to the challenge. As we always have, we will answer the call.

Tim Murray, the former lieutenant governor, is the president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.