What the next president's No.1 priority should be

Bridge collapse on I-5 near Mount Vernon, Wash., May 23, 2013
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Bridge collapse on I-5 near Mount Vernon, Wash., May 23, 2013

I recently had the privilege and the pleasure of delivering the commencement address at UC Berkeley's College of Engineering. In preparing I reflected on the sorry state of America's infrastructure and the role engineers and government can and should play in putting things back together.

In my talk I pointed out that Congress is largely populated with trained lawyers, individuals who are schooled in the art of discourse, but unschooled in the art (and excitement) of creating and building. With 200 lawyers in Congress and only 8 engineers, it's clear that decisions to invest in our infrastructure are being managed by those who focus on debating one another rather than on conceiving important new projects - projects that would create jobs, spur on our economy, and energize our population. I urged those graduates in the audience to consider a career in politics, and from the applause at that exhortation perhaps some will take up the challenge.

In the meantime, the country's infrastructure is in a shambles. Highways and roads, bridges, tunnels, water systems, airports, mass transit, and perhaps most notably our electric grid (for reasons of national security as well as function) are all badly in need of rejuvenation. According to the National Economic Council, roughly 65 percent of America's major roadways fail to achieve a rating of good condition, let alone excellent. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) states that almost 25 percent of U.S. bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. We have not built a major new airport in 20 years, and our air-traffic control systems are woefully behind advancements in today's technology. The ASCE estimates that an investment of $3.6 trillion by 2020 is required to bring our infrastructure to an acceptable level. Not even excellent mind you, but merely acceptable.

Billionaire philanthropist Jim Simons
Source: Jim Simons
Billionaire philanthropist Jim Simons

How did such a state come about? In the past, the Federal Government, as well as state and local governments, spearheaded the creation and renewal of U.S. infrastructure. The Erie Canal, which opened the interior of the United States to commerce with the east coast and ultimately with Europe; the intercontinental railway, which tied the entire country together; the Tennessee Valley Authority, which electrified and modernized a great swath of rural America; the Interstate Highway System, on which all of us have traveled; and a myriad of other undertakings were all funded or enabled by Government. Such efforts not only created productive projects but made us all proud of our country.

But in recent years our governments have backed away from such transformational activity, in particular, the Federal government. Having spent a fortune on the Iraq war, our swollen deficits made Congress reluctant to invest funds in domestic projects, even though such investments would, by any measure, have achieved a marvelous return. Having spent so much on destruction overseas we were loath to spend money on construction at home.

In 2008, we had a perfect opportunity. Millions were out of jobs, and there were thousands of projects worth doing. But instead of undertaking anything constructive, the members of our Congress did nothing but argue with each other, and as a result virtually nothing got done – particularly nothing that would truly strengthen our nation. Our politicians focused on tearing each other down rather than building our country up.

As the 2016 presidential election approaches, and a new administration prepares to take office we again have an opportunity to make the kind of public investments that would revitalize our nation, create jobs at a time when they are badly needed, and modernize our dilapidated foundation. It's time to seize this opportunity and not let it pass us by. Outnumbered as they are, we can only hope the engineers will at last prevail.

Commentary by Dr. James Simons, a prize winning mathematician, founder of Renaissance Technologies, and chair of the Simons Foundation, which is focused on supporting scientific research.

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