Yes to modernization; No to more congestion
Photo by Min An
Let’s use new federal infrastructure funds to improve life and protect cities from climate change, not just to create construction traffic from fixing roads, pipes and bridges.
How can we do better?
Solutions for the Underaffiliated spoke with Joe Kane, a Fellow at the Brookings Institution and economist, planner, and researcher. He works at the intersection of transportation, water, broadband, and energy.
Let’s switch to a more proactive approach by:
Aligning infrastructure projects with what’s necessary to deliver a more equitable, safe, productive, and sustainable society,
Leveraging new technologies to deliver it,
Expecting more transparency and accountability from those implementing infrastructure projects, and
NOT accepting Band-Aids on an outdated systems.
How Biden’s infrastructure funds could go to the wrong projects
Infrastructure Is not sexy. Americans typically only see and hear about it when a bridge collapse, there is a water-boil alert or people get sick, we are stuck in road- or sewer-repair traffic, or the bus or train we take to work is late.
But the United States’ infrastructure was built before or in the 1950s and no longer meets the needs of our population and level of development. It’s also underfunded, which is partly why it’s falling apart.
The result is that infrastructure projects usually involve maintaining and repairing, not building new using the latest technologies. However, it still supports the nation, so we can’t simply rip it out and start over.
The Biden Administration approved more than a trillion dollars over the next five years for infrastructure enhancements related to, for example, the power grid, broadband, cybersecurity and climate change, pubic transit, safety, cybersecurity and climate change, electric school buses … and roads, sewers, and bridges.
However, there is a risk that these funds will not be deployed in ways that truly modernize and improve society, but only give us more of the same, which means congestion without clear benefits.
So what’s the best approach to using infrastructure funds?
4 considerations to help decide which infrastructure projects to support
Americans can consider five factors when deciding which infrastructure projects are most important over the next five years.
1. We have been funding infrastructure like it is a personal choice, not a public good, meaning it’s inequitable, underfunded and ignored until it breaks or people get sick, hurt, or die
For example, if they can afford it, Americans can choose to buy bottled water, move to where broadband is available, and buy a car to get to work. People can even do their part to reduce carbon emissions by putting solar panels on their houses and buying electric cars. Again, if they can afford it.
If people don’t have the means, they run the risk of having unhealthy water, depending on unreliable transportation, and not being able to get school or paid work done because their internet service is spotty.
On a larger scale, you can point to entire cities in the United States with the means to install modern infrastructures and the ones that have been left behind. The infrastructure and quality of life is typically better in places with more wealth.
2. Extreme heat and cold due to climate change are accelerating the deterioration of old bridges, roads and pipes, causing them to collapse and break. Such infrastructure failures are a risk to Americans’ safety and productivity.
3. Third, the teams leading and doing the work of planning and implementing infrastructure projects need to be modernized, but they are also stretched.
They are trying to maintain and build at the same time with insufficient funds and the same skills that have been needed for decades. Most cities end up doing what they have always done: focusing on roads, bridges and water-related projects, using the same contractors with which they have worked for decades.
However, building new transportation, energy, broadband and other smart technologies requires new skills and training.
4. Federal funds are not guaranteed to go to the places that benefit Americans most. Water gets most of local government’s attention because it’s a necessity and poses the most obvious and immediate health risk if water systems fail.
Further, state legislatures decide how some funds are used. Historically, they have directed funds to transportation and road projects.
7 ways to modernize in a business as usual environment
1. Think of an efficient and effective infrastructure as a public good that can reduce carbon emissions and make Americans healthier and more productive. Therefore, funding it benefits all of us.
For example, if more low- and middle-income people have access to transportation and broadband, they could be more productive at work and perform better in school, leading to social and economic benefits for the entire country.
2. Focus on reducing climate risk. Our aging infrastructure is joining forces with the extreme cold and heat to cause more roads and bridges to collapse, pipes to crack, transportation to shut down, and power to go out.
3. Demand that local state and local governments innovate to prevent future disaster, create a better quality of life, and go beyond fixing pipes and roads. Part of this means expecting more from state legislatures than funding for road construction projects without clear public benefits.
4. Align consumer needs with infrastructure projects. For example, by knowing how people travel throughout the day, whether by car, public transportation, or on foot, we could build transportation systems that include roads, electric buses, and trains. We would know how to allocate road construction and broadband investments.
All that’s needed is the volume and flow of movement, not our identities, nor the data we use.
5. Enhance the skills and education of infrastructure teams to optimize the use of new strategies and technologies. In some cases, local governments can improve training and education programs. But enhancing the labor force dedicated to infrastructure will require formal education and the recruitment of a new and younger workforce.
6. Raise funds for new projects and the teams to implement them in creative ways. For example, Denver established a climate protection fund via a sales tax. Other cities have asked citizens to vote on taxes for specific infrastructure projects via ballot referenda.
7. Use social and mainstream media to hold government accountable for explaining infrastructure problems and plans by talking about them in terms of whether they deliver equity, climate resilience, and innovation to taxpayers.
For example, we can demand governments share infrastructure plans, current projects and their progress, completed work, future projects, and results via education and community engagement campaigns.