Infrastructure That Works for America—Not Just Wall Street

Minneapolis (Pixabay)

President Trump says infrastructure is an urgent priority on which the country is going to “start spending big.”  

We couldn’t agree more that an infusion of money is badly needed. Mr. Trump has used a figure of $1 trillion, and Senate Democrats have released their own Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure.

Getting infrastructure right means cleaner water and air, better transportation options, smart innovative systems, and greener more resilient communities. Getting it wrong would mean investment in more of the same—favoring highways over public transit, funding dirty energy, ignoring deteriorating water systems and denying the systemic policies of inequity plaguing cities, suburbs and neighborhoods long neglected. In short, profit shouldn’t take precedence over the public good.  

The current list of harmful challenges is long, dragging down economic productivity and contributing to a drumbeat of costly crisis responses. It’s an embarrassment that the American Society of Civil Engineers has today declared a D+ grade to our nation’s infrastructure, including a D- for transportation.

We need a 21st century infrastructure system that would produce real benefits to the nation and follow these key principles:

  • Public dollars must be used for the public good. When taxpayers pick up the tab, 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almost all of these critical infrastructure systems were built in the 20th century, in many cases relying on outdated technologies and practices. Technological innovations like smart meters and energy storage as well as upgrades to the nation’s power infrastructure will enable us to take advantage of the clean, reliable, and cost-effective energy resources. We need water systems that rely more on distributed green infrastructure, water efficiency, and water reuse to complement our existing investments in gray infrastructure systems.
  • Investment in Climate Resilient Infrastructure Projects and Smart Technology is critical. Climate and living patterns are changing rapidly. Infrastructure needs to be designed to meet the challenges of the next century, including rising sea levels, more intense storms, and longer droughts. It also means investment in new technologies and increasing demands on infrastructure systems as urbanization increases. Deploying information technology like broadband and wireless will help us get the data to run our cities and towns more efficiently and decrease the wear and tear on infrastructure. These systems can be added at minimal costs today. Projects should include high-quality connectivity in communities that don’t have it, to promote affordable access for all.
  • Accountability for Every Dollar. Transparency is non-negotiable and we must never eliminate public advice. There must be public input and a public review of the project’s benefits and potential impacts on wildlife, air and water quality, 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 infrastructure 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 historic 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. This 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 that for construction projects, costs aren’t reduced on the backs of bad deals for workers. New industries that accelerate an entire supply, like clean energy jobs are our future. The growth in clean energy and sustainable jobs is one of the brightest spots on our economic horizon.

We cannot afford to invest in more of the same. We should not build highways that divide neighborhoods or that provide water and sewer service to polluting industries, while ignoring deteriorating water and sewer lines. We cannot ignore the need for public transportation. Nor should federal funding be used to construct oil pipelines and refineries—both reported to be favored by the president—that lock America into an outdated infrastructure of the past.

Without 21st century infrastructure investment that supports climate-resilient communities—our kids don’t stand a chance of partaking in the health and prosperity that a great America promises.

Note: NRDC will release sector-specific policy recommendations for 21st century infrastructure investment, including for water, energy, and resilient communities in a forthcoming blog series.

About the Authors

Shelley Poticha

Director, Urban Solutions

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