With our nation’s roads, railways, water systems, and other public resources in a shameful state of disrepair, major new federal investment in infrastructure is long overdue. President Trump’s recently proposed infrastructure plan is deeply flawed, but it does draw congressional and public attention to this important issue.
In a recent post, I critiqued the president’s State of the Union address for failing when viewed through the lens of three core values: kindness and decency, respect for facts and expertise, and concern for future generations. Those same values can help us evaluate the Trump infrastructure plan, and envision the plan our nation really needs.
Just and equitable infrastructure priorities
A starting point for discussion is this: when public dollars are spent to update our infrastructure, they should be used to maximize social and economic return for the public.
The best returns are likely to come when targeting those communities most in need of infrastructure improvements—communities that are not able to pay for them through private funding or via their cash-starved local governments.
Unfortunately, the Trump plan heads in the opposite direction. In the plan’s proposed scoring system to rank competing projects, 70 percent of the score hinges on whether a project can leverage private or state/local funding, while only five percent is based on the economic and social returns on investment. This means, as a recent New York Times story highlights, that an access road to a luxury condominium development would score high, as a developer would invest in a project that raises the value of his property, but repairs of an existing roadway serving a static population would likely score low. As one professor observed, “instead of the public sector deciding on public needs and priorities, the projects that are most attractive to private investors will go to the head of the line.”
Allowing the private tail to wag the public dog should be an absolute non-starter. But what would an infrastructure plan look like if it were rooted in the public values of kindness and decency?
Such a plan would recognize that many communities today lack adequate modern necessities: clean water, sewer systems, public transportation, parks, sidewalks, storm drains, streetlights, schools, and libraries. Moreover, if the horror story of Flint, Michigan taught us anything, it is that disregard for the quality of infrastructure that serves the most vulnerable communities can have catastrophic consequences, such as lead levels in kids that may severely harm and limit them throughout their lives.
A truly public-spirited infrastructure plan would identify other similar disasters waiting to happen—and fix them before they do. It would also supply more of what many communities need most—affordable housing near public transit in urban areas, and modern amenities such as fast internet capabilities in rural areas, for example.
While the president’s priorities as stated in his plan are way off the mark, Congress can align the plan with the values of kindness, decency, and equity by passing a bill requiring that special weight be given to infrastructure projects that deliver basic necessities to underserved communities. Prioritizing such investments creates a moral underpinning to an overall infrastructure plan that can lend it both urgency and broad support.
Infrastructure informed by science and public input
We make our best personal long-term spending decisions when we gather facts carefully and listen to people we trust, including experts; this is true for government infrastructure investment decisions as well.
Unfortunately, rather than encouraging robust fact gathering, public input, and consideration of alternatives, the Trump infrastructure plan calls for a radical streamlining of the environmental review process that has been in place since 1970 under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The law requires that when federal agencies fund or issue permits for major projects, they consider the environmental impacts of the project and assess whether alternative options might better protect the environment, public health, and safety. NEPA mandates the preparation and issuance of an environmental impact statement, with opportunities for the public to weigh in at various stages of the decision-making process. And when agencies disregard this law, citizens have the right to take them to court.
While the NEPA process is often derided, it has a long history of success. In one of scores of well-documented examples, scientific and public input through the NEPA process helped protect the drinking water supply for millions of residents from Phoenix to Los Angeles by preventing a mining company’s highly contaminated uranium tailings from being left near the banks of the Colorado River, requiring instead that they be transported to a secure site. In this example, the NEPA process changed the agency’s mind—without it, it is likely that these contaminants would have been capped and left in place, as this was the agency’s initial “preferred alternative.”
Opponents of the federal environmental review process often discount successes such as this one, claiming that lengthy federal reviews hold up worthy projects. They have a point—in my own experience in state government, I saw the nation’s first proposed offshore wind farm die in part because federal agencies took too long to weigh in, while opponents used the judicial system to delay construction. But there are many ways to coordinate and improve permitting that don’t sacrifice the obvious benefits of environmental review. Here, as in many other instances, President Trump proposes to use a wrecking ball when a scalpel would do.
Rather than eviscerate an open and thoughtful review process, a wise infrastructure plan would encourage our best scientists and experts to weigh in early so that the best decisions are made.
A particularly important area for scientific input is to make sure that new federal infrastructure investments will be able to withstand the future effects of climate change. It is simply imprudent to spend dollars now on projects that will be obsolete in the future, like building a new ramp for a bridge that will routinely flood due to sea level rise, or a roadway that will not be able to withstand anticipated heat waves, or water pipes that won’t carry enough water due to drought conditions. As several of my colleagues at UCS have explained, we need to promote infrastructure improvements that are built to last, and informed by climate-smart principles embedded up front in project selection and review. But that kind of careful debate and analysis can’t be accomplished if the Trump administration succeeds in eviscerating the environmental and public review process.
Infrastructure with an eye to the future
Wayne Gretsky is famous, not just for his prodigious hockey skills, but for his oft-quoted line “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” This applies not just to sports, but to infrastructure as well.
President Trump’s plan mainly shores up the infrastructure of the past, largely ignoring the investments we need to meet the most pressing challenge of our time—accelerating the transition to clean energy to prevent runaway climate change.
An infrastructure plan for the needs of tomorrow must include and prioritize: transmission lines that connect the country’s plentiful wind and solar energy to the population centers where it’s needed; a modern electric grid that is highly efficient and can accommodate more renewable energy; energy storage demonstration projects to jump-start this promising technology; and electric vehicle charging infrastructure that allows drivers of electric cars, trucks, and buses to more easily travel long distances.
Just as we need a massive federal investment to mitigate climate change, we also need infrastructure to protect us against the harms that will occur due to the climate change that is already locked in by global warming emissions that continue to linger in the atmosphere. A key lesson here is that preventative measures cost far less than rescues and cleanups when disasters hit. The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that every dollar invested through federal grants to protect against storm surge and floods, fires, earthquakes and wind yields six dollars’ worth of benefits.
A forward-thinking plan should therefore prioritize items such as stormwater management and green infrastructure to minimize flood damage; urban tree planting programs to cope with heat waves; and the fortification of vulnerable national priorities such as water infrastructure, military installations, nuclear power plants, and electric utility lines.
We should welcome a national debate about our infrastructure needs. The president’s plan falls far short but, in this debate, we need to say what we stand for, not just what we oppose. Supporting a plan that is just and equitable, that encourages the input of scientists and the public, and that looks ahead to benefit future generations is a very good start.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.