BR, N.O. rank high nationally among infrastructure-related jobs

The Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas rank high in a report on infrastructure-related jobs, a sector that would benefit even more from a move in Congress to boost jobs through massive building.

Nonprofit Brookings Institution’s analysis of the value of infrastructure united groups as disparate as the AFL-CIO and the National Association of Manufacturers last week in their calls for more infrastructure jobs.

Highway construction, port improvements and water system repairs were among the items on the wish lists.

The Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas fared well in a May 9 report by Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program on infrastructure’s ability to create permanent jobs.

Brookings’ analysts said only 15 percent of a typical infrastructure project’s jobs are tied to construction, while 77 percent are permanent positions related to the operation or use of highways or other capital improvements.

New Orleans ranked 12th in the nation for the share of its jobs tied to infrastructure, and Baton Rouge finished 15th, according to Brookings. Combined, the two areas had more than 100,000 such jobs in 2012.

Some Louisiana leaders cautioned that failure to address future infrastructure needs now could cause severe problems just as industry begins to build $60 billion in new or expanded plants across the state.

“There’s going to be growing road congestion up and down the Mississippi River,” said Dan Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, headquartered in Baton Rouge.

“One of the things we hear … is ‘Infrastructure. Infrastructure. Infrastructure.’ And it’s mostly roads. There is a growing realization that some planning must be done, mostly with roads.”

More jobs are headed toward Louisiana workers, Borne said. “But, hey, they have to be able to get to work first.”

Borne noted traffic often stands still on Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. La. 30 also can shut down south of Baton Rouge during shift changes at area plants.

A fast-moving connector is desperately needed between I-10 in Port Allen on the west bank of the Mississippi and the area north of New Orleans, Borne noted.

“It’s going to require a cooperative effort, such as the interstate highway construction program of the 1950s and 1960s,” Borne added.

“If there are enough diverse interests that are willing to hold hands on this, something can be done,” Borne said. “This might get some support from both Democrats and Republicans. Anything that can break the logjam needs to be considered.”

In New Orleans, Michael Hecht expressed similar thoughts regarding the Brookings report and subsequent calls for infrastructure investments.

Hecht, president and chief executive officer of Greater New Orleans Inc., said he was not surprised that both New Orleans and Baton Rouge ranked high for infrastructure jobs as a percentage of total employment.

“We know in Louisiana that infrastructure is a big jobs multiplier,” Hecht added.

Hecht, like Borne, added the area’s coming wave of industrial development demands immediate planning for additional infrastructure needs.

“Both communities (New Orleans and Baton Rouge) could use some more infrastructure investment right now,” Hecht said.

“Baton Rouge has more traffic congestion problems than New Orleans at this time.”

Added Hecht: “Unless we plan for maintaining and replacing our infrastructure, we’re going to have continual challenges. We need highways and river systems and rail lines to support commerce today and in the future.”

In central Florida, Hecht noted, the cities of Tampa and Orlando began planning decades ago for huge growth that has occurred over the past few years.

“That’s why central Florida has grown in population and commerce,” Hecht added. “We need to do that with our infrastructure. It’s a multi-decade proposition.”

In the nation’s capital city last week, others already were pushing hard for infrastructure improvements.

“Manufacturers need Congress and the (Obama) administration to work together and make better progress on improving our nation’s infrastructure,” said Jay Timmons, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Manufacturers.

“Our infrastructure system is a tremendous national asset we’ve built up over generations,” added Thomas J. Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “If well-maintained, it can continue to deliver outstanding benefits to all Americans for generations to come.”

“We didn’t become the world’s largest economy just by good luck,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “We created millions of jobs and became the most productive (nation) in the world because of massive, smart public investments at the right time.”

Added Trumka: “Now is the time to do it again. Our nation can invest smarter, and our workers can build it better. Investing in America’s infrastructure is the best bet we can make, and the labor movement is all in.”

In New Orleans, Hecht said: “I think it’s very encouraging that these various groups are bringing this up.”

Hecht added that Republicans and Democrats in Congress may overlook partisan differences when considering such pleas for joint action on infrastructure.

“When issues are framed in terms of jobs and the economy, we tend to get a lot more bipartisan agreement and action,” Hecht added.

Fueling some of that big push in Washington was the conclusion by Brookings researchers and analysts that 2.7 million of the nation’s 14.2 million infrastructure workers in 2012 will need to be replaced by 2022.

Brookings also projected that another 1.1 million workers will be needed for growing infrastructure jobs, such as wind turbine technicians and solar photovoltaic installers.

Building new infrastructure and expanding existing infrastructure to handle future needs also is important because entry-level wages and pay for the next couple of rungs on the ladder exceed those of some other commercial ventures, such as food preparation.

For example, refuse and recyclables collectors had average annual wages of $35,230 in 2012, Brookings reported. Laborers and movers of freight, stock and materials averaged $26,410.

Heavy truck and tractor-trailer rig drivers averaged $40,360. Bus, and transit drivers averaged $38,470.

Air traffic controllers paid taxes on wages that averaged $118,430.

“As the nation continues to pull out of the Great Recession, policymakers must consider a broader range of development strategies and employment opportunities to drive future economic growth,” wrote Brookings researchers Joseph Kane and Robert Puentes.

“Stubbornly high unemployment not only wastes an enormous pool of talent but also acts as a continual drag on spending and output, holding back new projects and investments in the country,” Puentes and Kane added.

“Infrastructure is uniquely positioned to address these challenges in both the short and long term,” the researchers wrote in their report.

In Baton Rouge, economist Loren C. Scott noted that much of the infrastructure spending in Baton Rouge and New Orleans since 2005 occurred as a result of natural disasters.

“They’re still not through spending money on reconstruction because of hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” Scott explained.

The retired LSU economics professor and founder of a consulting firm, Loren Scott Associates, noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent more than $1.5 billion on levee repairs in the New Orleans area since the hurricanes.

Scott said the state’s Recovery School District, along with parish school districts, has poured more than $500 million into the repair or replacement of flooded facilities and equipment.

Another $2 billion will have been spent for reconstruction of public hospitals in New Orleans by 2016, Scott said.

In the Baton Rouge area, Scott noted, more than $600 million has been spent or earmarked for expansions of Interstate 10 and Interstate 12.

And another $300 million was used to make federally required improvements to Baton Rouge’s sewage treatment systems, Scott said.

To conclude that such spending has ended or is unnecessary, Scott said, likely would be a mistake.

“If people are expecting a letdown after all the Katrina and Rita work is finished, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Scott said.

Some public projects will be necessary to accommodate more than $18.6 billion in new industrial development between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Scott said.

Some of that development already has begun, and some remains scheduled over the next few years, the economist added.

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