Opinion: The right $1 trillion infrastructure plan for America

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L.A. freeway interchange. Photo credit: iStock.

By Shelley Poticha

Democrats and President Trump both want to improve the nation’s infrastructure. To do so, the key is to prioritise the needs of the people and the environment — not the pockets of investors and industry CEOs.

American cities and towns have a major problem.

They rely on ageing and crumbling bridges, water and sewer systems, power plants, and electricity grids that can’t meet today’s needs, much less tomorrow’s.

We’ve ignored the infrastructure we already have, and as a result, tens of millions of Americans drink water contaminated by deteriorating pipes or outdated treatment plants, and many more get their water from systems operating well past their safety limits. Almost everyone knows of roads, bridges, and public buildings in their communities that are crumbling. Almost everyone faces the uncertainty of power failures as the frequency of extreme storms increases. These are life-threatening issues.

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Water contamination warning sign at San Diego’s Imperial Beach. Photo credit: iStock.

Democrats and the Trump White House alike seem to understand we can no longer live with a failing infrastructure, and both sides bandy about a $1 trillion price tag for investment, but repairs and simple upgrades aren’t the answer.

As we’ve seen in rebuilding after major disasters, infrastructure that uses new innovations in construction and transportation, stormwater management, and energy efficiency does more than “fix” our cities and neighbourhoods. It puts people to work, saves millions of dollars, and builds healthy, vital, and prosperous communities that will last for the next generation.

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The recent election brought us face-to-face with the divisions in America. But it also showed us there is a yearning in urban, suburban, and rural communities alike for a better, safer, more affordable way of life.

The right investments in infrastructure play a key role in fulfilling such desires by creating steady jobs, reducing air pollution, producing clean drinking water, cutting the cost of heating and cooling, reducing doctor and hospital visits, and stimulating business and entrepreneurship. By the “right” investments, we mean those that ensure that for every dollar we spend, we see economic, social, and environmental returns.

Last month, Senate Democrats offered their vision for federal infrastructure investment: a Blueprint to Rebuild America. It calls for a comprehensive package that has something for everyone―fixing crumbling roads and bridges, upgrading water systems to get harmful toxins out of our drinking water, and investing in 21st-century energy and transportation infrastructure while revitalising Main Streets and making our communities more resilient to severe storms and harsh heat and cold. They acknowledge that with that $1 trillion price tag, private capital will be a necessary part of the equation.

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Navy divers assist local authorities with recovery efforts after the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, 2007. Photo credit: U.S. Navy.

The Democrats’ plan holds big promise. Let’s hope that as it is refined, it continues to keep the needs of people and the environment at its core. That means targeting investments to the people and places most in need; to the projects that stimulate jobs, innovation, and new businesses; and to infrastructure that ensures good health for people and the planet.

Any new infrastructure plan should:

  • Reinvest in our communities and reduce the gap between the richest and poorest to provide all people the opportunity to live vital and healthy lives.
  • Invest in a 21st-century clean energy infrastructure that emphasises power from renewable sources, energy efficiency, and improved service.
  • Support the construction of resilient systems that are sited, designed, and built to tolerate increasingly frequent instances of extreme weather, including damaging storms, floods, droughts, and heat waves.
  • Eliminate lead in the nation’s drinking water systems and ensure the delivery of safe and affordable water from the source to the tap by 2030.
  • Protect our natural resources and wildlands for the future, recognising their importance to the nation’s legacy as both environmental and recreational assets.

We have yet to see an official proposal from the Trump administration or Republicans in Congress that reveals a true vision for federal infrastructure investment. There are early signs of reckless disregard for core environmental protections and favouritism toward oil and gas industries and private financing that would line the pockets of investors, potentially at taxpayer expense.

But there’s also hope―in signals that we hold some of the same priorities for fixing broken roads, bridges, and pipes while putting Americans to work.

Shelley Poticha is the director of the Urban Solutions program at the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC).

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