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By Edward G. Rendell

America’s public infrastructure – our roads, bridges, airports, seaports, waterways and even our sidewalks – is a mess. You can see it for yourself every day. But it’s not just a nuisance – it’s bad for our economy.

Engineering experts estimate we need to invest more than $1.5 trillion just to make our infrastructure competitive – not the best in the world, just acceptable.

U.S. infrastructure has fallen from first place in the World Economic Forum’s ranking to 14th today. In almost every component, we are stuck or losing ground every year.

China now boasts six of the world’s top 10 ports; none of the top 10 is located in the United States.

In air transport, we’re suffering from the world’s worst congestion. Internationally, we now rank 32nd behind countries like Panama and Malaysia.

While there are more than 15,000 miles of true high-speed rail in operation around the world, almost none is in this country, which ranks 18th in overall rail system quality.

Our roads are not much better. A third of all U.S. roads are in poor or mediocre condition. In 2010 alone, Americans wasted 4.8 billion hours sitting in traffic, wasting 1.9 billion gallons of fuel at a cost of $101 billion.

Nearly a quarter of America’s 600,000 bridges are classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Since 1966, 1,500 bridges have collapsed.

When you add it all up, our nation’s capital needs for surface transportation alone exceed $1.7 trillion over the next 20 years. The longer we put off this spending, the higher the mountain we have to climb, and the further we risk slipping into second-rate status.

The time has come for the United States to commit to a long-term infrastructure revitalization plan that invests at least $200 billion a year. It should focus on transportation, but it should also include our water and wastewater systems, our dams, our electric grid and even areas where high-quality broadband is lacking.

We need a National Infrastructure Bank to finance large-scale projects and leverage private capital. When government dollars are involved, we need to promote accountability by setting clear criteria for all funding, and by carefully auditing the results.

At a time when our nation is crying out for job creation, a smart and well-focused plan to meet our most critical needs can produce millions of good-paying American jobs over a sustained period. Most of all, we need to get to work on the railroad, the highway and the seaport – or else we will watch time, and the international community, pass us by.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell is a co-chairman of Building America’s Future, a bipartisan coalition dedicated to bringing about a new era of U.S. investment in infrastructure.