LIUNA Exec Explains How Infrastructure Funding is Crucial for the Public & Workforce
It’s a busy Thursday afternoon and the Americans for Transportation (ATM) Coalition catches up with Terry O’Sullivan to discuss some of the most persistent issues our country faces: infrastructure and ensuring transportation capital.
O’Sullivan, who became the General President of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) nearly 18 years ago, is a dynamic and no-nonsense kind of guy overseeing an organization with more than 500,000 members in the United States and Canada.
LIUNA has its roots in immigrant and minority construction workers who came together in 1903 over issues such as exploitation. And now, the organization is helping lead the charge for greater U.S. infrastructure investment.
“I don’t think there is an American in this country who isn’t impacted by our crumbling transportation, energy and water infrastructure,” according to O’Sullivan. “We need to do a lot better. We need to improve our infrastructure and we need to put the financial resources forth to do that.”
There are multiple solutions, including raising the federal gas tax, exploring fees based on vehicle miles traveled, considering investments from Wall Street, using grants and different financing mechanisms, and promoting public-private partnerships.
“Let’s put our heads together and let’s explore every funding and financing option and figure out how we stop talking about it and start rebuilding America,” says O’Sullivan.
“There are a lot of good examples of ways to raise the money but people have gotten bogged down in political gamesmanship,” he adds. “And that’s the kind of nonsense, in my book, that needs to stop.”
Walking the Infrastructure Talk in America
Infrastructure and transportation investment have typically been bipartisan issues, which O’Sullivan sees as good in an era that has become thick with partisanship.
Reports and real-life scenarios repeatedly illustrate how the state of America’s infrastructure is declining. O’Sullivan and other transportation advocates understand why this a pivotal moment.
“Consider how many Americans drive over infrastructure that needs drastic repairs. Every day, motorists make 188 million trips on a structurally deficient bridge and the average age of a bridge is 43 years – dangerously close to their design lifespan,” says O’Sullivan. “The American people care because they are driving on terrible roads [e.g., with potholes] and people are saying ‘We need to do something about this. It’s costing us money, it’s costing us time in traffic, and it’s costing our economy and our country.’ I think the states right now are grasping this a lot better than we are grasping this in D.C.”
The ATM, however, is proof that finding solutions and common ground can be done even when stakeholders have differing perspectives. The Coalition, which is managed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, continually reinforces America’s history of getting things done and working collaboratively.
“We appreciate the relationship we have with the business community and the ATM Coalition. The partnership between the Coalition members has ensured that this isn’t a political issue because roads and bridges are not Democrat or Republican,” says O’Sullivan. “While we may have some fundamental differences in opinion with some of our Coalition partners, at the end of the day that Coalition was built upon making sure that we fix our crumbling transportation infrastructure in this country and the power of it is the diversity of it.”
LIUNA Helping Ensure Sustainable 21st-Century Infrastructure
When state departments of transportation receive federal monies, it helps them move forward on larger-scale and long-term projects. This helps the public’s quality of life and safety, benefits businesses, and also increases jobs and employment for construction laborers and union members.
The 2015 passage of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act committed critical federal funding to move America forward. This, combined with work in the energy sector, has led to many work opportunities for LIUNA members.
But the FAST Act expires in almost two years. “Right now we do have a lot of work but when we didn’t have a long-term highway bill, we had extremely high levels of unemployment – as high as about 26 percent [in various parts of the nation] in the construction industry – because of mostly short-term and unpredictable funding,” explains O’Sullivan.
This scenario, O’Sullivan points out, has far-reaching impacts. These include those in the construction trade losing health insurance and pension contributions, not having places to live, food for their families and vehicles to drive, and the loss of skilled workers who searched for other jobs and careers.
“Our union is comprised of builders. We build skyscrapers and buildings. We build America’s infrastructure and we’re proud of that,” says O’Sullivan. “We have been working with the ATM Coalition, with the Chamber, and with other like-minded groups to promote increased infrastructure investment for decades. It is very encouraging that the President and Congress have serious infrastructure proposals. We hope to see a plan in the near future and I think there will be one with all of these many voices and the leadership of the ATM Coalition.”