Rebuilding America's Infrastructure

Floor Speech

By:  Paul Tonko
Date: Jan. 15, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. TONKO. Sure. Thank you, Representative Garamendi. Thank you for bringing us together for this hour on the floor, where I think it's important to pay attention to the needs out there as they relate to the damages that were brought upon certain areas of the country by Mother Nature.

Yes, there's been a lot of focus with this on Superstorm Sandy. That really had its presence felt just to the south of my given congressional district. However, there was some damages in the northern reaches of upstate New York, the more northern sections as we traveled north of the metro area.

But suffice it to say, the need here for assistance by not only New York, but New Jersey and Connecticut, where the proper of New York, the metro area of New York City, Long Island, Westchester County, were impacted severely by this storm. As I said, on the fringe elements in my area, not as much. But certainly, New Jersey and Connecticut were hard hit.

But just over a year before that storm, you're absolutely right, we were impacted by Irene and Lee, a double dose of damage that really impacted my given congressional district severely. It looked like a war-torn area, as was the case here with Superstorm Sandy.

And this Nation, whenever impacted by natural or manmade disasters, found a response from Congress, that the President, whoever that person might be at the time, working with Congress, expedited the assistance, wanted to get that aid there with a high degree of urgency.

What we saw here was uncalled-for delays as people languished. I mean, we have to look at the human element here, the human cost of 88 Americans that were impacted, lives lost because of this tremendous devastation, the impact that befell so many communities with infrastructure being damaged severely, if not destroyed totally.

It was also about the impact on the business community, the loss to commerce, and certainly property damage that people are going to have to respond to over a long course of comeback that I have witnessed in my district with the storm, as you indicated, being more than a year ago.

And so it is important for us, as a Nation, to be responsive and responsible. That has always been the measure coming forth from this Nation, understanding, with sensitivity, what needed to be done and getting aid to people. That's what it's all about.

And so today, when finally a vote was taken, some 70 days after Superstorm Sandy hit, 70-plus days after the storm hit, finally we get a response, when so much pain and anguish was allowed to continue, unnecessarily so.

The infrastructure issues in this country, storms aside, need to be addressed. The American Society of Civil Engineers has graded many of our bridges into a D classification, a poor grade, deficiencies that are out there brought to our attention.

So not only do we need to respond to these tragedies and respond to our given infrastructure, but I think what happens here is an opportunity to come forward with job creation, providing for the trades and skilled tradespeople to be put to work. That is so important for our economy. It's so important for our public safety; it's so important for emergency response, as we've witnessed here in the northeast of the country.

And so while the fight was long and at times unnecessary, at least the vote was taken today and we moved forward.

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Mr. TONKO. Right. You know, I think over and over again people are measuring with exit polling the sentiments of the electorate out there; and people have said that there is a need for government. They want effective government, efficient government.

Well, I think when we look at some of the data that are collected, Representative Garamendi, it is important for us to acknowledge that as we rebuild in our areas that have been damaged by Mother Nature, you don't just replace; you need to improve upon the situation.

For instance, if there are data that are telling us that more and more water volume is expected in certain watershed areas, as in my district, it would be foolish to spend tax dollars, the hard-earned taxpayer dollars and simply replace an infrastructure, a bridge, at the same height, at the same span, if, in fact, we know that the water and the force of that water is growing with time.

And so these are the ways to, I think, incorporate the soundness of academics and analysis that go into how we respond to this. And if much of it is driven by climate change, global warming, some of the impacts of Mother Nature that are causing these disruptive scenarios, then ought we not look at sound policy that then stretches our thinking and really puts a laser sharp focus on these situations?

So this is a call for a big-picture view. It's a call for effective replacement and repair so that we're responding to data that are collected that speak to the demographics that we should expect to have happen as we go forward and as we rebuild, making certain that there are those opportunities for waterfront communities to embrace their sense of geography.

I represent a district that is not only donor area to natural resources, but also historic resources in those waterways. And people want to have waterfront opportunities. They want to rebuild their communities so as to utilize these natural resources as a marketing agent to draw people to the area.

Well, we can steward those resources so as to tame the Mother Nature impact in a way that allows us to go forward with this re-marketing strategy, that allows us to utilize our sense of location, our place destination, and do it in a way that is possible because of preventative measures, because of retrofitting that can take hold; and it's a way to utilize the engineering services out there, civil engineering, architectural opportunities to build communities and build them in a way that allows us to have that sense of place only deepened, rather than denied because we've walked away from what might have been damage from Mother Nature and have abandoned those opportunities.

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Mr. TONKO. Well, when you speak, Representative Garamendi, about the cost of these repairs or improvements we're talking about a design team, we're talking about a construction team, we're talking about a maintenance team. And all of that translates into jobs. So these efforts are, yes, an expenditure, but it's putting people to work and addressing not only public safety but commerce.

Again, my home county, which is split by a historic river, was the scene of a devastation just over 25 years ago where a New York State Thruway bridge collapsed because of the flooding that was occurring beneath that bridge. A creek that you could walk across, walk through in the middle of summer, was equal to in CFS, cubic feet per second, the flow of Niagara Falls. We lost 10 lives in that incidence, and also saw the impact locally to commerce. It just disrupted the flow of activity to ship goods to whatever section of our area. It totally disrupted that situation. That is just a microcosm of impact of what happens.

But you're very right. With the levees that might be at risk that could be a challenge to public safety, the poor ratings of our many, many bridges across this country, the need to begin aggressively to address these situations, means that you can bend that cost curve simply by moving projects forward, because the longer we go in time the more expensive it will be and the more risky it becomes with these deficient bridges.

So programs like The American Jobs Act or Build America Bonds, all of these efforts are a progressive bit of policy that then takes us to a new realm of thinking, a commitment to the safety of the people of this great country, a commitment to commerce and the doable qualities of having infrastructure vastly improved that enables us then to talk serious business about growing our Nation's economy.

So I think that the efforts here by the Democratic Caucus to bring to the attention of the full House the sort of positive thinking, the sort of planned opportunities that speak to the very nature of our infrastructure--and both of us represent States that rely heavily on well-developed and very well-maintained infrastructure--is indeed imperative. We need to move forward with a very strong supportive statement about this Nation's infrastructure.

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Mr. TONKO. Well, absolutely. The manufacturing element in our society is strong. It still is very much--a bit of statistical evidence that we rank high in the international economy with manufacturing jobs, but there was a huge loss in the decade before this administration; 4.6 million jobs lost in that manufacturing element. Well, in order for us to stop that bleeding, it's important, I believe, to promote advanced manufacturing. Retrofitting our manufacturing centers in a way that allows us to be cutting edge and doing it smarter--not necessarily cheaper, but doing it smarter--allows us to maintain that world leading status for manufacturing.

Also, as we talk about infrastructure, beyond the bonds effort and the American Jobs Act, an infrastructure bank bill that will allow us to utilize that concept to leverage public and private funds that expand the opportunities to invest in our infrastructure takes us well beyond the traditional roads and bridges and levees that we talked about, the waterfront opportunities and dam repair, but it also brings us into the infrastructure for telecommunications and for electric utilities so that we then are cutting edge. We can provide for an upgrade, if you will, in the grid system.

Now, we saw what that collapse was about in the year 2003, when branches rubbing on some power lines in Ohio put out the lights on Broadway in New York City. Now, that is unacceptable weakness. If there was ever a vulnerable, gaping situation that would have those looking at us for a weakness, it was there, that this grid system was so weak, designed for a monopoly setting and now being utilized to where electrons, not only region to region within States, but State to State if not nation to nation, with Canada wheeling in electrons into the U.S.

So we need to vastly improve that sense of weakness in our system and allow us to speak to the needs of manufacturing because many are an energy-intensive operation. We need to be energy efficient so that they're utilizing their manufacturing process in a way that reduces cost, and to build into the equation all sorts of innovation so that they're doing things in a smarter fashion and able to compete at that international level for jobs; because as they land those contracts with improved operations, that means more American manufacturing jobs. That is that kind of approach, that cutting-edge thinking that enables us to maintain our sense of productivity, that embraces our intellectual capacity as a Nation, and that takes the research that we should invest into and allows us to translate that research opportunity into jobs.

So there are these dynamics of change and reform that can be brought into the discussions here as we go forward. That will speak, I think, to the vitality, the economic vitality of this Nation and the growth of jobs in a way that is significant, that is long lasting and that brings us into a sophisticated thinking, which this American society is very capable of doing.

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Mr. TONKO. Right. The efforts that we have with so much of manufacturing, with the incubator programs that enable us to provide for an innovation of sorts in any of these assembly operations is key, I think it's key to our future.

I think of those situations in my district, or even in my former district, where they worked with a local college that was very technically sophisticated. In this case, RPI, in the Greater Capital Region of New York, worked through its incubator program to develop these new opportunities within the plastics manufacturing that Kintz Plastics in Schoharie County utilized.

I think it's worth mentioning on this floor that that really brought about a new phase of activity for this company. By innovation, by readjusting its procedure, its process, they were able to compete more effectively. That required, however, that they move to training their workforce because it required a new skill set. As they did that, they reached out to a local community college, in this case, Hudson Valley Community College in the Capital Region of New York.

That partnership created the human infrastructure, the incubator provided the innovation, and they lived happily thereafter, because what they did was secure contracts in that international competitive sweepstakes because they provided for innovation. The improvements that they made to their assembly operation enabled them to maintain that sense of competitiveness.

It's that sort of thinking that takes us to a new level of job creation and job retention. Compounding that, or creating in the complement the Buy American concept, then inspires reaching to those local firms. It can all be done in that holistic sort of format, with a big picture sort of view that enables us to go forward and build upon sound policy, sound investment, with guarantees of much better outcomes for America's working families.

The middle class is taking it on the chin. The working families have paid the price, and it's time for us now to be high geared in terms of making certain that the American worker comes first in our thinking.

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Mr. TONKO. You speak to the innovation, you speak to research, and to me that speaks to the DNA of our Nation, which has always been this pioneer spirit. It's what's paid tribute to on this floor when policies such as that which you just describe are promoted. It's embracing that pioneer spirit, knowing that there are better ways, better opportunities out there and better avenues to travel. Let's pursue that with this utmost bit of pioneer spirit.

I represent a district that was the donor area to the Erie Canal--you've heard me talk about this--that provided for the Westward Movement and the Industrial Revolution. It was America at her best, believing in herself, listening to the needs of workers, listening to the ideas of workers and moving forward, embracing that sort of pioneer spirit and building the research opportunities. I'm thinking of line-loss along our electric grid system. Think about what we can save in terms of energy supplies and in dollars if we moved forward with the superconductive cable research project.

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Mr. TONKO. There are so many of us that are fans of education, higher education investment. Think about it, we cultivate all of this talent, we draw forth the abilities of people through education, and we allow them to discover who they are. What are the gifts that I bear that can be utilized to strengthen society? Well, we make that investment and then don't gain on it. We don't stretch those opportunities to the max.

It's so important, I believe, to continually think beyond the status quo. And when we're dealing with the energy arena, it's a line-loss for one that allows for huge savings, and great opportunities for jobs to research that potential; but it's also issues like waste heat which can be recaptured and make our energy system more efficient. So as we create and generate these energy supplies, if there's waste there, and we can captivate, or capture, that waste and stretch the amount of energy supply that we can create, here yet is another opportunity.

So it's endless. And for us to just continue to do the same old kind of responses to everyday issues isn't the sort of challenging outcome that I think allows us to best function as an American society.

So there are policies and there are tax reforms that encourage and inspire this sort of investment, research tax credits, opportunities within the renewable energy area with production tax credits. All of this, being promoted in advance, we need to expand upon those opportunities. Because you're right, Representative Garamendi, it is an investment, it requires dollars, but those investments provide for lucrative dividends. And there are many more dollars earned than those invested into the progress that we need to strike.

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Mr. TONKO. Representative Garamendi, what I hear you say is probably a definition of the American Dream.

The American Dream was designed and brought to us by the boldness of generation upon generation of immigrants who added to the peoplescape of this great Nation, added to the native American population by stages of journeys that traveled to these shores. We as a compilation of those journeys are a stronger people. The foundation upon which we stand and function and dream was developed by people who dared to dream nobly, dared to invest in their community, in their people. That, I think, is the challenge to us in this very moment in time.

Will history see us as a people that dreamt beyond the ordinary, or will we be those who were frightened by the thoughts of the challenges of our times? I think that our greatest days lie ahead of us. The American Dream that burns boldly and nobly in our hearts speaks to us as that beacon of inspiration. Move forward, invest in America's people, invest in ingenuity, innovation, in the intellectual capacity of this Nation, and tread boldly into the future. And know that you will leave that next generation with an even stronger foundation that was granted us for our time in this Nation.

It has been an honor to join you this evening.

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