We need a 21st-century infrastructure plan that produces real benefits for Americans.
Infrastructure supports us—literally—as we go about our daily lives. Just about everyone agrees that we need to repair America’s neglected and failing roads, bridges, energy grids, airports, schools, dams, waterways, water-purifying and drainage systems, and public transportation.
The quality of infrastructure, after all, contributes to whether societies thrive or fail—and is key to our success as a nation. Yet we often take it for granted until things go wrong, sometimes risking lives and livelihoods in the process.
For months, we’ve heard from the Trump administration about a grand infrastructure plan. But the reality appears to be quite different, with a misguided emphasis on cutting approval time for projects that takes aim at environmental safeguards, as well as an overall lack of federal funding, with a firmly stated but vague outline for increased private investment. Trump has proposed $200 billion in funding—some of it actually coming from cuts to existing infrastructure programs—to stimulate an overall investment of $1.5 trillion. The White House plan has no broad vision and zero focus on some of America’s biggest needs: upgrading public transportation nationally, expanding broadband access to rural areas, eliminating lead in drinking water, and making communities more resilient to devastating storms and flooding.
Trump himself says there is no immediate blueprint for going forward on infrastructure in a broad and thoughtful way. Meanwhile, our infrastructure struggles.
Some of the starkest recent examples of infrastructure failure include the Minnesota bridge collapse, the degradation of the New York subway system, and the contaminated and untested drinking water in millions of American homes.
The latest infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers details the country’s state of disrepair:
- Of the more than 600,000 bridges in the United States, almost 4 in 10 are at least 50 years old, and 9.1 percent were structurally deficient in 2016. Some 188 million trips are made across these bridges each day.
- There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year, wasting more than 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water. An estimated $1 trillion investment will be necessary to meet demand over the next 25 years.
- Since September 2010, counties that are home to 96 percent of the U.S. population (nearly 309 million) have been affected by federally declared weather-related disasters, severely straining infrastructure.
- The nation’s transit systems have been chronically underfunded, resulting in a $90 billion backlog for repairs.
Recent monster storms demonstrate the vulnerability of aging and inadequate infrastructure, as well as a lack of resiliency in the face of climate change effects. Our vulnerable coastlines are dotted with cities packed with people surrounded by concrete, turning threats like superstorms into disasters because of haphazard and shortsighted development.
Green infrastructure—using natural surfaces to capture, hold, and filter rainwater where it falls—builds resiliency not only by helping to manage stormwater runoff but also by adding open land and green space to our cityscapes. This improves our quality of life and better guards our health and property by limiting sewer overflows into clean water systems and protecting against flooding and rising sea levels.
Infrastructure done right contributes to better health and air quality, increases recreational and shared community space, and reduces capital costs and energy demand. It also attracts business and investment. In fact, mitigation against storms saves some $1.2 billion a year, according to federal calculations, with every dollar spent on climate resiliency resulting in savings of $4.
Getting infrastructure wrong would mean investment in more of the same—favoring highways over public transit, funding dirty energy, neglecting deteriorating water systems, and ignoring the systemic ills of inequity that plague cities, suburbs, and long-neglected neighborhoods.
It’s an embarrassment that the American Society of Civil Engineers has given a D+ grade to our nation’s infrastructure, including a D- for transportation. We need a 21st-century infrastructure system that produces real benefits to the nation and follows the following key principles.
Public dollars must be used for the public good.
When taxpayers pick up the tab on a project, the public should be the beneficiary of that investment. We must prioritize performance-based infrastructure and projects that deliver economic, social, and environmental benefits such as jobs, improved mobility, and climate resiliency. Innovative financing and management though public-private partnerships are encouraged. However, any project that gives private investors special incentives must demonstrate value to the community over the long term, result in fair but not excessive profits, and allow for joint management with the public sector to ensure the public purpose is maintained.
Innovation in clean energy and water should be a priority.
Water and energy systems should meet 21st-century needs. Unfortunately, almost all these critical infrastructure systems were built in the 20th century, in many cases relying on outdated technologies and practices. Technological innovations such as smart meters and energy storage—as well as upgrades to the nation’s power infrastructure—will enable us to take advantage of clean, reliable, and cost-effective energy resources. We need water systems that rely more on distributed green infrastructure, efficiency, and reuse to complement our existing investments in gray infrastructure systems.
Investment in climate-resilient infrastructure and smart technology is critical.
Climate and living patterns are changing rapidly. Infrastructure needs to be designed to meet the next century’s challenges, including rising sea levels, more intense storms, and longer droughts. As urbanization increases and places growing demands on infrastructure, investment in new technologies will be crucial. Deploying information technology such as broadband and wireless will generate the data to help run our cities and towns more efficiently and reduce wear and tear on infrastructure. These systems can be added at minimal cost. Projects should include high-quality connectivity in communities that don’t have it, to promote affordable access for all.
Accountability for every dollar is required.
Transparency is nonnegotiable, and we must never eliminate public input. There must be a public review of every project’s benefits and potential impacts on air and water quality, wildlife, jobs, and public health before any work is undertaken. Ensuring compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act is important, and major infrastructure investments should not skip over reviews that help avoid costly mistakes.
Flexible funding should be allocated for local and regional planning.
The stream of federal dollars for infrastructure should go directly to communities, rather than solely to states. Metropolitan planning organizations in the nation’s large and small urban areas should be able to have direct access to funding so that local communities can fulfill their own infrastructure visions. This addresses, for example, the historical challenge of implementation funding for innovative local plans—some of which were years in the making under the interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities but were not funded by states. A local focus should also include the hiring of local workers for community projects, putting economic opportunity in the hands of the very people affected.
Good, forward-looking jobs are important.
We must prepare Americans for the future. Infrastructure projects are an opportunity for good jobs beyond construction. It’s important to ensure that costs for construction projects aren’t reduced through bad deals for workers. New industries that accelerate an entire labor sector, such as clean energy jobs, are our future. In fact, the growth in clean energy and sustainable jobs is one of the brightest spots on our economic horizon.
As Shelley Poticha, managing director of NRDC’s Healthy People & Thriving Communities program, wrote recently, “For the sake of the country, we need a plan that will live in history as a turning point—and not for creating yet another barrier to living up to our national promise.”
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