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Why We Need to Make It in America When We Build Our 21st Century Infrastructure

By Eric Parker / Public relations professional /  February 25, 2011 05:10 PM


In his State of the Union address on January 25, President Obama said we must “out-build the rest of the world,” because without modern infrastructure, we cannot keep up in the 21st century.

For us to “win the future,” we need to connect the dots between infrastructure and a national manufacturing strategy. Other countries, including Germany, China, India, the U.K., Brazil and Canada have one. Why don’t we?

We cannot overlook the fact that we have been importing nearly all of our 21st century infrastructure in some key areas instead of building it ourselves – including light rail and high-speed rail.

We should not have to buy our trains from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan and other countries. It’s not just about pride – it’s about jobs, patents and corporate taxes.

Auto assembly plants in the U.S. that are owned by foreign manufacturers are not the same as if they were part of the Big Three because their top executives’ incomes, innovations and sales income flow back to their countries instead of staying here. We need to keep those management, engineering and manufacturing jobs here, those patents here and the corporate taxes here.

When Obama announced his plan for the FY 2012 budget, it included $53 billion over six years for intercity rail (including new high-speed rail and current Amtrak operations) and $30 billion to establish a National Infrastructure Bank. As he noted in the SOTU, we built the Transcontinental Railroad. However, Bombardier (Canada) and Alstom (France) build Amtrak’s Acela trains in a joint venture. And Amtrak is spending $466 million to buy 70 electric locomotives from Siemens (Germany) for its (non-Acela) Northeast Regional and Keystone routes.

We cannot afford to have another missed opportunity to revive our railroad manufacturing industry. We need to get GE Transportation (whose CEO, Jeff Immelt, is the chairman of the White House’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness) into the business of building high-speed rail engines and passenger cars.

Let’s look at two cities I lived in (Boston and Washington) and one that I visit regularly (New York City). The New York City Subway – the most-used subway system in the U.S. and fifth in the world when it comes to ridership – currently gets its rolling stock from Alstom and Kawasaki (Japan). The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority gets its subway cars from Bombardier, and the newer Green Line streetcars came from AnsaldoBreda (Italy). Washington, D.C.’s Metro purchases its trains from CAF (Spain).

Three dozen metropolitan areas in the U.S. have been buying from companies headquartered in different countries, but because they all did so individually, we failed to notice that we have the “economies of scale” necessary to make it a viable revenue stream for an American manufacturer. If we fail to act soon, another 40 planned light rail projects will be purchasing their trains from abroad.

There is a glimmer of hope when it comes to our cities’ mass transit systems in American light rail manufacturer United Streetcar LLC of Portland, Oregon, but it’s a small company that uses a Skoda (Czech Republic) design and Siemens motors.

We need to convince Boeing (parent of McDonnell Douglas) that if Bombardier and Kawasaki can build jets, subway trains and streetcars, then it too can expand from being just an aerospace company to a transportation one.

After all, when we invest taxpayer money in mass transit, we should have American companies up to the task – especially when we are spending tens of billions of dollars every year.

Last summer, then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) introduced the “Make It in America” agenda and Congressman Dan Lipinski’s (D-Ill.) National Manufacturing Strategy Act passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support by 379-38, but the Senate did not vote on it before the end of the 111th Congress. Nearly four in five Americans support a national manufacturing strategy. If not for the Senate Republicans, we would have one.

A few weeks ago, Congressman John Garamendi (D-Calif.) reintroduced legislation to encourage the domestic production of passenger rail equipment.

However, the reality is that with the GOP controlling the House in the 112th Congress, it’s up to the White House and Senate to pick up the ball.

We cannot win the future without 21st century infrastructure. We cannot win the future by buying our trains from foreign-owned companies.

It’s time for our largest American companies to recall the words that Robert F. Kennedy (paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw) liked to close his speeches with, that “there are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were and ask why not.”

We can win the future. We will out-build the rest of the world. But when we do so, we must Make It in America.


A D.C.-based public relations professional, Eric was the communications director for Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), a reporter for State Tax Notes and worked on the 2008 and 2004 coordinated presidential campaigns.

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