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Legislative Window For Vital Public Infrastructure Improvements Exists

April 19, 2021 by Daniel Mollenkamp
People sit at the base of a transmission tower in North Arlington, N.J., Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

WASHINGTON – Public infrastructure researchers are saying the U.S. needs a new infrastructure vision, pointing to the Texas power grid failure in February as just the latest example of how vulnerable our long ignored and outdated systems have become.

The worst impacts of the winter storm that caused Texas’s power grids to fail, killing at least 111 people, could have been avoided by a $400 million investment in weatherized improvements to the Texan energy grid, Adie Tomer, fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, argued during a presentation on Thursday.

Tomer is co-author of a recent Brookings report that offered up a slew of policy solutions that would advance the outdated public infrastructure in the U.S.

An emphasis on climate resilience, digitalization, workforce development, and fiscal health would allow the country to provide infrastructure value, at scale, that punches above its weight, Tomer said.

The report focuses on improvements that alter the ways in which the country measures infrastructure needs, modernizing the infrastructure, and experimenting with future improvements. It seeks to provide a framework for Congress and federal agencies to implement a shared infrastructure vision and takes into account changes that have happened in America since the last massive public infrastructure shift in the middle of last century. 

One focus area, relevant to the Texas power grid failure, is climate.

The rise in climate disasters, ranging from storms to droughts and fires, has incurred $1.8 trillion in economic costs since 1980, according to the report. And the cost per decade is increasing. Climate disasters cost the U.S. about $81 billion per year in the 2010s, compared to about $18 billion a year in the 1980s. 

America’s electricity and transportation infrastructure is also overly reliant on fossil fuels, although green infrastructure is growing. The Brookings report estimated that about 60% of American electricity sources still utilize fossil fuels, for example. 

For many reasons, this represents a possible moment of shift for the country. Fossil fuels saw an unprecedented reduction in 2020, which climate scientists have warned will drop off without a shift in policy to move away from reliance on fossil fuels and towards green infrastructure. 

The challenges facing American infrastructure are immense, but this provides an opportunity, experts say. There’s a legislative window at the moment that has wrenched open not only the usual questions about how to pay for large shifts in infrastructure but also questions about priorities.

The “forward-looking” set of national policy priorities this vision embraces needs to cover the water, energy, transportation, and telecommunications systems, they argue. 

The public narrative is obsessed with what’s broken, which doesn’t speak to future needs and priorities, said Debra Knopman, a principal researcher for RAND. It diverts attention from the future, which is where it should be, she said.

Tomer describes himself as “bullish” on reforms making it through the legislature soon, inspired in part by the far-reaching nature of the Biden proposal which he says has inspired serious national dialogue about public infrastructure in the country that is not merely a backward-looking catalog of infrastructure failures. 

The Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, an ambitious and far-reaching attempt to take advantage of the chance to update the country’s infrastructure, tries to tackle climate and inequalities in the labor market as part of federally-led infrastructure improvements. 

Earlier this month in a speech in South Carolina, President Biden described it as a “once-in-a-generation investment in America, unlike anything we’ve done since we built the Interstate Highway System and won the Space Race decades ago.”

The Biden plan really rises to the moment by focusing on the coming transition to a low-carbon economy with modernizing the grid and development of power storage and building out the infrastructure to support electric vehicles, Knopman said. 

The plan also addresses the need for communities to invest in resilient infrastructure, which she says she hopes will cause better land use planning to reduce repetitive losses from natural losses. Its inclusion of improved drinking water and deployment of broadband also shows that it focuses on needs of rural and underserved communities, she said.

“Bottom line: I think many of the critical pieces are there in the Biden plan,” she said.

However, she added, more attention will need to be paid to the technical and financial capacity of local governments to sustain investments and maintenance over the long-haul.

“That’s where the action is going to be in the coming years,” she said.

However, CEO of Husco Austin Ramirez had some criticisms saying the plan is “way too big, it’s way too partisan, and it’s not funded appropriately.”

User fees need to be a significant part of the strategy for paying for the infrastructure, he said. Ramirez said he wants to see more discussion of a carbon tax as a funding mechanism. 

“I think this is the right moment and the right mechanism to think about if there is going to be a more general tax that’s levied for this infrastructure doing it in a way that helps offset some of the impact of greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

A recording of the Brookings event, Rebuilding American infrastructure for the 21st century can be viewed here.

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