Infrastructure is at the heart of America’s greatest challenges. The infrastructure investments made by generations past have contributed to improved health and welfare, and to the nation’s unparalleled economic prosperity. But the infrastructure decisions of the past have also cast a long shadow, leaving America to deal with the burden of lead water pipes that jeopardize our children’s health, fossil fuel pipelines that contribute to global warming, and transportation and solid waste infrastructure that no longer serve today’s needs.
It is time for a bold, new vision for federal infrastructure policy – one that focuses attention on the 21st century’s toughest challenges, from ensuring safe drinking water for all Americans to addressing global warming, which threatens to change American life as we know it. The nation’s infrastructure policy is an opportunity to undertake the challenge of building a better world.
It is also time for a new approach to federal investment in infrastructure – one that’s less focused on creating ribbon-cutting opportunities and maximizing the number of jobs and is more attentive to getting the most benefit out of every dollar spent.
By focusing federal policy on unleashing high-value investments in critical areas – and resisting the temptation to spend resources on counterproductive boondoggle projects – the Trump administration and Congress can leave a lasting infrastructure legacy that will be remembered by future generations.
A new approach to federal infrastructure investment policy would follow four common-sense principles.
Principle 1: Focus infrastructure investment on what matters.
The infrastructure we build today will shape American life for generations to come – creating opportunities and obligations for our children and grandchildren. By prioritizing infrastructure investment to achieve important goals in five main areas – clean energy, clean water, solid waste and recycling, natural infrastructure and transportation – decision-makers can lay a solid foundation for the health and prosperity of the nation.
Principle 2: Fix it first.
Americans have spent trillions of dollars to build infrastructure that we subsequently allowed to fall into disrepair for lack of attention to maintenance. To maximize the value of the taxpayer dollars that went towards the initial construction of infrastructure, the nation’s infrastructure vision should prioritize repair and rehabilitation of useful infrastructure that already exists over the creation of new infrastructure, where cost-effective and appropriate.
Principle 3: Don’t invest in infrastructure that will need to be abandoned before the end of its useful life.
Global warming is the most important challenge of our time and no infrastructure investment should be made without considering its implications. We should not invest or allow the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure that will need to be abandoned as the nation transitions to cleaner forms of energy to address climate change, and all new infrastructure should be built with the climate of the future in mind. The same principles apply for other foreseeable changes (such as emerging technologies) that threaten to make infrastructure investments obsolete.
Principle 4: Get the most out of our infrastructure.
Building the biggest, most expensive infrastructure is not always the best approach available to meeting a community’s needs. Using our existing infrastructure more efficiently can often reduce the amount we need to spend, with similar benefits.
A bold, visionary infrastructure plan would prioritize investment in five key areas essential to public health, the preservation of a livable climate, and the quality of life in our communities. These crucial areas are energy, water, natural infrastructure, solid waste and transportation.
Much of America’s current energy infrastructure is focused on the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels, deepening U.S. dependence on dirty energy sources that threaten the nation’s health and exacerbate the threat of global warming. Fossil fuel consumption is responsible for over three-quarters of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
To improve our energy infrastructure, the Trump administration and Congress should:
Aging water infrastructure in the form of leaking water pipes and older water service lines containing lead threatens public health and wastes valuable drinking water. Underinvestment in the maintenance of these lines results in leaks that lose 6 billion gallons of treated drinking water every day.
To improve our water infrastructure, the nation should:
America’s natural infrastructure – including our wetlands, forests and rivers – needs stronger protections. Because some of our most incredible natural spaces are also resource-rich, they are prone to the wrong kinds of infrastructure investment. Currently, 90 percent of U.S. public lands under Bureau of Land Management control are open to oil and gas leases, while only 10 percent are fully protected for conservation and recreation.
To improve our conservation infrastructure, federal policy makers should:
The country’s solid waste infrastructure has failed to keep up with 21st century needs. Many U.S. recycling facilities, for example, have the capacity to process large quantities of newsprint but are not able to handle the current quantities of waste that have become commonplace in today’s world, such as plastic. The amount of bottles and jars made of PET in the recycling steam by weight, for example, has increased nearly seven times over in just 15 years.
To improve our solid waste infrastructure, the federal government should:
America’s car-centric transportation system has made the transportation sector the largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with light-duty vehicles contributing more to the pollution than all other forms of transportation put together. Investment in highways in particular has also decreased air quality, increasing the risk of asthma and decreased lung function in children living near major roadways.
To improve our transportation infrastructure, federal officials should:
The renewed federal debate around infrastructure is an opportunity to forge a bold approach that addresses the nation’s most important challenges while using taxpayer money wisely. The Trump administration and Congress should take advantage of that opportunity to prioritize projects and approaches that deliver lasting benefits for the American people and future generations.