WBJ: Feds must focus on trade, infrastructure
As originally appearing in The Worcester Business Journal

As the 116th Congress commences this month, it does so with a daunting to-do list. Most urgently, leaders on Capitol Hill must come to an agreement with the president to end the shutdown. Beyond that, this year Congress must address important issues with a tremendous impact on the New England economy.

New England’s clout in Congress has shifted significantly with Democrats taking control in the House of Representatives. Our all-Democratic House delegation now find themselves in the majority, with many members well-positioned in leadership roles, including House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, and Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Rep. Katherine Clark.

Of the items on Congress’ agenda, The New England Council believes several are of critical importance to our region’s continued economic wellbeing.

First, our region would benefit from a major federal infrastructure investment package. And fortunately, the need for such investment is one area where leaders on both sides of the aisle can agree. Questions remain about how it will be paid for. An increase in the gas tax or a vehicle miles travelled tax are the two most discussed options. But with our harsh weather and aging infrastructure, there is no question that upgrades are desperately needed in our region.

Nearly 65 percent of our region’s 18,000 bridges are rated as either fair or poor by the Federal Highway Administration. Yet, the number of drivers on New England roads increased by 1.45 million from 1996 to 2016, and vehicle miles travelled increased by nearly 19 percent.

Another critical issue for New England is trade, particularly ongoing free trade with Canada and Mexico. In late 2018, President Donald Trump signed a modernized trade agreement with these key partners, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and announced withdrawal from its predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement, in six months, pressuring Congress to approve the USMCA.

The importance of trade with Canada and Mexico for our region cannot be understated. Our neighbors to the north and south are top export markets for all six New England states. In 2017 alone, New England exported $8.3 billion in goods to Canada, and another $4.4 billion worth to Mexico.

Given our region’s strengths as a global medical innovation hub, a third priority for New England is federal research funding, particularly for the National Institutes of Health. Not only does federally funded research bring about new treatments and cures for diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to ALS to cancer, but it’s a huge economic driver in New England. In 2017, NIH funding totaled $3.64 billion for the six new England states, and supported 44,705 jobs in the region, including 32,000 in Massachusetts alone.

James T. Brett is president & CEO of The New England Council, an alliance formed to promote economic growth.

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