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States roads and bridges are deteriorating, hindering our ability to be competitive

(Editor’s note: The following has been edited from its original submission to one of our sister newspapers).

If you look around our region, you can’t help but notice the existing infrastructure — bridges, roads, electric and gas systems, communication networks — that provide the energy for our homes and businesses and allow us to move the goods and to provide the services that drive our economy. That infrastructure also enhances the livability and our enjoyment of this special place.

These projects weren’t just built to suit the needs of the day. They were designed to provide room for growth and to support long-term economic prosperity, reflecting confidence in our region’s future and providing for future generations.

Today we struggle just to keep up with maintenance on what we have, and to build what we need now. Overall, our infrastructure is in decay. Why does that matter? It’s the framework and backbone of economic growth. We need to improve it, not only to maintain our ability to attract new business, but also to maintain competiveness in the businesses that we have.

To grow our economy, and to provide the jobs we need for our children and grandchildren, we have to increase our investment in our infrastructure. But with the old public funding models under pressure, we have to be innovative in our approaches.

Three years ago, I was asked to join a group looking at how we improve economic growth in the region, creating more jobs for our citizens. The group formed as the Community Investment Initiative, and has been working the problem on a volunteer basis with support and research funding from Metro.

The CII group, civic leaders with diverse backgrounds on both the public- and private-sector sides, has been working to develop a realistic strategy to pay for tomorrow’s needs.

After more than two years of research, discussion and understanding, we think we have a formula that can succeed. We’re calling it the Regional Infrastructure Enterprise, or RIE, a project developed by the CII’s Leadership Council, with input from many interested and important members of the community.

With the RIE, we are planning to tap into private-sector expertise to identify and develop projects that are suitable for a combination of public and private investment to help bridge the funding gaps for projects we all use. The RIE will be open to projects throughout the region.

This doesn’t mean we’re “privatizing” the public-sector projects. It is a model of combining both private and public resources, and finding projects that can be approached with that combined model.

The key element for both public and private sectors is the need to be globally competitive in today’s integrated economic world. We’ve got to be able to efficiently move people and goods around this region, and help our traded sector export, in order to stay globally competitive.

The CII plan to create the RIE is only one of the many things we need to do to improve economic growth and create jobs. Another important area is utilizing our industrial land sites. Two of the first steps we can take are approval of House Bill 2284 and Senate Bill 246.

These bills will help us finance the investments we need to develop our industrial sites, and provide clear job creation incentives and requirements.

Our average annual income continues to trail our neighboring states and the nation — to improve our economic growth outlook we need to invest in our basic infrastructure. The rest of the world is doing so. It’s imperative for our regional competitive position, and with limitations on available public funding, we need to come up with creative solutions.

John Carter is chairman of Schnitzer Steel Industries and a member of the Community Investment Initiative’s Leadership Council.

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