WATERLOO — A contingent of Cedar Valley Democrats and presidential hopeful Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, 45, participated in a discussion about modernizing America’s infrastructure Friday in Waterloo.

The conversation, organized by Will Marshall with the Progressive Policy Institute, was held at the Hawkeye Community College Van G. Miller Adult Learning Center.

The question on everyone’s mind was how to make infrastructure more interesting to the general population.

A four-person panel addressed the infrastructure needs of Iowa and the United States as a whole. Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart, Marshall and Ryan went over how infrastructure across the state and country has rotted away.

“We need a big agenda from the federal government,” Ryan said. “The reality of it is the issues we’re talking about today are structural, they are long-term structural issues that need change in the United States. You have to make these critical investments.”

Ryan made a point about how China and the United States are competing on infrastructure, and China has been winning.

“We are in a direct competition with China,” Ryan said. “They’re building islands in the South China Sea.”

China has a rail line connecting Rotterdam, Netherlands, to northeast China, he said.

“They are connecting the old silk road. That’s their commitment,” Ryan said. “We as Democrats, as progressives, we have got to say ‘we’ve got to get this government working.’”

Hart and Brown-Powers both had the same feelings about Iowa’s infrastructure. Brown-Powers pointed out Iowa is the ninth-worst state in infrastructure.

“We’re the second-worst for bridges, so we’ve got major issues,” Brown-Powers said.

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Infrastructure needs to be a priority in Iowa instead of special interests, she said.

“We’ve got 24,000 bridges that have been labeled an issue in Iowa, 15,000 need repair right now and that costs $1.6 billion,” Brown-Power said. “The number is staggering.”

Hart was surprised a progressive institute had to lead the charge for infrastructure improvements.

“Think about how far we’ve gone back as a country,” Hart said. “Our infrastructure needs are a very delicate balancing act.”

He talked about how Waterloo’s had to addressed several different infrastructure needs this month.

“We found out there was a force main leak in one of our areas and some that seepage was moving into the Cedar River, and we had to move to start to try to take aggressive action to mediate that situation,” Hart said. “We are in a position where we need to make $90 million to $100 million of infrastructure changes in our (water) treatment plant.”

Whether people call it climate change or not, there were two 500-year floods in 10 years, Hart said. Along with two floods last year, Waterloo had the wettest September in its history, and this winter was the most severe in the last 100 years.

“All of these changes are becoming the new normal for our community,” Hart said. “We need a partner in Washington that is willing to roll up their sleeves and say ‘this is important.’”

PPI has held several meetings around Iowa concerning issues like infrastructure and whether universal health care is a viable option.

Several local residents asked how to make infrastructure more of “sexy” policy issue.

“We know we’ve got a strong intellectual policy case, but how do you do a better job of making this a compelling issue for Americans?” Marshall said. “We’ve got make this a national priority.”

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