Infrastructure in the Trump Congress: We Must Build for the Future, Not the Past

January 26, 2018 | 2:31 pm
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Rob Cowin
Former Contributor

President Trump is expected to announce plans for what he’s characterizing as a $1.7 trillion infrastructure package during his State of the Union address next week. Earlier this week a supposed leaked copy of a White House infrastructure memo revealed the broad outline of an infrastructure plan, only 20 percent of which appears to be direct federal investment.

The math doesn’t quite add up, but the White House is saying $200 billion in federal funds, and that the money will come from spending cuts. The plan includes federal credit support and loan programs, but assumes the vast majority of the infrastructure funding would come from state and local government budgets (which are already strapped), as well as the private sector.

Not surprisingly you won’t find terms like “climate change” or “clean energy” anywhere in the document, but in 2018 not even President Trump can escape the reality of worsening climate impacts and extreme weather threatening our outdated infrastructure. Nor can he ignore the job-creating renaissance happening in renewable energy, displacing old, expensive, harmful electricity generation like coal-fired power, and redefining assumptions about resiliency and the need for a centralized electricity grid.

Years of neglecting federal infrastructure investment have made the hole deeper. The American Society of Civil Engineers says we need to invest a staggering $4.6 trillion by 2025 just to bring our infrastructure up from a D grade to a B grade.

Regardless of what the final appropriation ends up being, the political will to make significant investments in infrastructure represents a huge opportunity to make the lives of Americans much better—public safety, agriculture, consumer, labor, and business interests all win if we get this right. But it will be up to the constituents, ordinary American citizens, to keep their members of Congress from squandering the public treasury on old, outdated ideas and business as usual.

We need an infrastructure plan that looks to the future and matches the reality we are living in in 2018. What is on the table right now doesn’t appear to be that.

How did we become a country with crumbling infrastructure?

State and local governments account for the vast majority of public infrastructure spending (about three quarters), but that spending has been sharply down across the country in recent years as states deal with their own budget crises. Federal capital investment in transportation and water infrastructure has fallen 19 percent over the last 15 years. Some analysis shows total federal spending on infrastructure as a percentage of GDP has dropped by half over the last 35 years.

Prior to the highway bill they passed out of desperation in late 2015, Congress had gone ten years without making a significant infrastructure investment, and the investments they have made are not remotely adequate to keep pace with our nation’s old, and rapidly deteriorating, infrastructure. Additionally, the US federal excise tax on gasoline, which is a primary source of funding for infrastructure projects, hasn’t been increased since 1993 and isn’t adjusted for inflation. As a consequence, our national Highway Trust Fund is at the edge of solvency.

Building for 2018 and beyond

As we’ve seen recently with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, climate change is making extreme weather events even more intense.

NOAA recently published numbers showing that 2017 was the costliest year on record for US disasters. We simply can’t afford to do things business as usual when it comes to disaster preparedness. Any responsible infrastructure package must include policies and direct investment that strengthen hazard mitigation before a disaster hits. Likewise, it also must include science-based standards that reflect “future conditions” including climate change, assuring that we build to last, stronger, and smarter, instead of letting our investment get washed away by the next storm. A recent UCS white paper describes a set of principles for climate-smart infrastructure.

Our antiquated electric grid is also badly in need of modernization. This includes the way we generate and distribute electricity, and also how we deploy electric vehicle charging or fueling stations. Spending large sums of money to maintain outdated electricity infrastructure squanders a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leap ahead; improving access and electricity reliability, particularly for rural and historically underserved communities, while also benefiting consumers and protecting public health.

But the administration has demonstrated a real lack of understanding of the real challenges vexing our outdated electric grid, and a lack of receptivity to the emerging technologies that can generate and deliver cleaner, cheaper electricity, in a more efficient and reliable way. Constituents will need to continue to weigh in with their members of Congress to make sure we invest in the electricity infrastructure of the future instead of propping up the old electricity infrastructure of the industrial revolution.

From a climate and clean energy perspective, here’s what we need in an infrastructure package

  • Direct investment and/or policies that prioritize the installation of customer-sited solar power and battery storage systems, which can provide both grid-connected and independent electric operation when needed during outages, rather than relying on expensive and polluting diesel or gas-fired generators. This is especially important for isolated or islanded communities in places like Alaska and Puerto Rico.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that deploy more clean energy micro-grids for isolated communities, and micro-grid systems which reduce outages and increase the resilience of critical public and private facilities such as schools, hospitals, community centers, and police and fire departments.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that modernize the electric grid, including the application of technologies to improve observability, efficiency, design flexibility, and prediction of system performance on the distribution system.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that accelerate investments in our electric transmission system to provide access our nation’s robust wind and solar resources, improve the efficiency of the system, and reduce the long-term costs to consumers.
  • Direct investment in charging infrastructure that will allow people to travel further in electric vehicles—particularly fast-charging stations along high-volume travel routes that connect urban centers.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that incentivize transitioning bus fleets and port trucks to electric vehicles to reduce the pollution impacts on communities that are on busy routes or adjacent to our nation’s ports.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that prioritize hazard mitigation before a disaster hits. This includes investments in hardened and surface infrastructure like roads, bridges, public buildings, military installations, the electricity system, water and wastewater infrastructure, taking into account future conditions from climate change.
  • Direct investment in flood and wildfire mapping, risk assessments, and data collection that can provide the science-based information and tools needed to plan, build, and repair critical infrastructure.
  • Updated building standards and codes that take account of future climate risks, including a robust flood risk management standard for federal infrastructure investments.
  • Prioritization of direct investment in historically disadvantaged communities and economically vulnerable communities, which are more likely to be vulnerable to damage from extreme weather, and have the least means to pay for needed up-front investments in preparedness and hazard mitigation.

The will to get infrastructure right

As noted earlier, Congress has lacked the political will to meet their responsibilities when it comes to investing in and maintaining our nation’s infrastructure. If somehow the stars align in this Congress to work in good faith on comprehensive infrastructure legislation, we shouldn’t squander that opportunity with misguided policy that looks to the past. And we should reject false choices that demand we pursue infrastructure at the expense of public health, safety, and environmental standards that help keep our standard of living high.

We need an infrastructure plan for 2018 and beyond: one that looks to the future, addresses real gaps, and capitalizes on real opportunities to increase access to reliable and affordable clean energy, while also reducing our vulnerability to extreme weather and future conditions from climate change. We need an infrastructure plan that responsibly uses public funds and makes direct investments on improvements. The costs of neglecting this investment are apparent, and the benefits for jobs, public health and safety, national commerce, and the planet should be too.

Reach out to your members of Congress and communicate your priorities for an infrastructure package. Getting this wrong is not an option; and if recent history is any indication, we can’t expect Congress to get it right on its own.