Political change is in the air, and that means — as with any incoming administration — talk of infrastructure is swirling, and trillions of dollars are on the line.
Yet perhaps never before has there been a moment when major infrastructure investment seemed like more of a certainty. This time it's not just the usual talk of fixing our "crumbling roads and bridges." America is trying to fix the economic and social damage wrought by a devastating pandemic, and there is a wide push for infrastructure spending as a tool to aid the recovery.
The “infrastructure as economic stimulus” idea has problems. Money alone cannot fix an economy that’s rigged to blow and in which consumers are routinely left exposed to predatory financing. And building the wrong kind of infrastructure can do damage that far outweighs any short-term benefits. But if the conversation can turn to the question of what projects are actually necessary to solve America’s most pressing challenges, then there is an opportunity to carry out a plan that will leave the country better off both now and in the long run.
That’s why this past November Frontier Group and our partners at U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research & Policy Center released Blueprint for America: An infrastructure plan to make our families and communities safer, healthier and more resilient. The report lists infrastructure proposals covering five types of projects: energy, transportation, water, solid waste and natural infrastructure. Each proposal adheres to commonsense principles to ensure that it serves the public interest — principles like avoiding infrastructure that will need to be abandoned before the end of its useful life, and the need to get the most out of what we already have. And each project was picked with America’s biggest challenges in mind, first and foremost being climate change.
This left us with 33 infrastructure proposals for meeting our nation’s most important needs. Like the need for a cleaner energy system to slash emissions and keep our homes and businesses running even when power lines are knocked out by extreme weather caused by global warming. The need to save our public transit systems — systems that are going to need to play an increasingly central role in how we get around, and yet right now are being forced to slash service in the wake of COVID-19. The need to make sure that our drinking water systems are safe, to avoid failing an entire generation of children at risk of lead poisoning. The need to build a new generation of solid waste infrastructure, not just to deal with growing piles of recyclables, but to break the waste cycle and make less trash in the first place. And the need to care for our forests and other priceless natural infrastructure.
Perhaps most importantly, our list of ideas does not include anything that would send us backwards. As we wrote in 2019, “infrastructure investments we made generations ago keep us locked into polluting energy sources, keep us stuck in gridlocked rush hour traffic, or deliver drinking water to our homes that isn’t clean.” In other words, an infrastructure plan that includes billions of dollars for new highways or fossil fuel pipelines could make our biggest problems worse when we simply do not have time to waste.
There is almost certainly a new wave of infrastructure spending on the horizon. But in crafting a trillion-dollar plan, we cannot simply focus on short-term economic stimulus. The magnitude of the challenges facing our nation and planet demand that we look further ahead. If we are able to take advantage of the urgency created by the moment, we have an opportunity to do something far better than simply improve our lives in 2021 — we can build something lasting that future generations will thank us for.
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