Against all odds, the hot topic in Washington, DC this Fall is…infrastructure. That’s because there is a growing consensus that, as a nation, we can’t afford to keep kicking the can down the increasingly potholed road.
With the aim of helping to inform the conversation, NextGen Climate America and Center for American Progress convened Energy Secretary Moniz, Transportation Secretary Foxx, NextGen Climate America Founder Tom Steyer, Building Trades President Sean McGarvey and leading experts on energy, water, and transportation for a conference on Upgrading America’s Infrastructure. ICYMI you can watch the full event here:
Here are my major takeaways:
- America needs an infrastructure upgrade.
U.S. infrastructure consistently ranks among the poorest of all developed countries: the latest American Society of Civil Engineers report card gives the nation a grade of D+, and the World Economic Forum ranks our infrastructure 25th in the world. The nation’s electricity grids, energy pipelines, water systems, and buildings are all in desperate need of upgrades.
- Invest for the future, rather than rebuilding the past.
When it comes to infrastructure, 2050 is now. If we only repair our crumbling roads and bridges and replace our leaky pipes, we will end up with great infrastructure for the 1950s; we need to build infrastructure for the 2050s instead. We can’t afford to waste resources building new fossil fuel infrastructure that would have to be abandoned before the end of its useful life to avoid busting our carbon budget. Infrastructure decisions need to be made with an eye towards building the future, not simply repairing the past.
That means building energy and transportation infrastructure for a clean energy economy that produces at least 80 percent less carbon pollution than we did in 1990. Key projects will include:
- high voltage transmission lines to connect our richest renewable energy resources to our largest markets;
- electricity storage systems, ranging from expanded pumped hydro capacity, purpose-built batteries to grid-interactive water heaters and electric school buses;
- upgrading municipal buildings, universities, schools and hospitals to high performance building standards;
- building truly affordable housing that is energy-efficient and transportation-accessible;
- expanding access to electric vehicle chargers on Interstate Highways, at workplaces, multi-family housing and other key areas;
- creating smart, connected, zero-emission public transportation systems to provide convenient access to work and play for commuters and urban dwellers who don’t want to own a car or can’t afford to;
- expanding the use of zero emission freight systems in our ports, rail yards, and truck routes.
Climate-smart infrastructure also means anticipating the changes in climate that we can no longer avoid. That means recognizing that the seas are rising and floodplains are expanding. And it means building in resilience to the types of extreme weather that are becoming more frequent and severe. Key projects include:
- stormwater runoff solutions like replacing antiquated combined sewer and storm drain systems (which drain raw sewage into our rivers during major rains and floods) with modern stormwater and sanitation systems, and installing bioswales, rain gardens, and permeable pavements;
- urban heat island mitigation through cool roofs and urban forestry;
- drought resilience through groundwater catchments and xeriscaping;
- low-water and drought-tolerant agriculture;
- ecosystem services enhancement through wetland restoration and land conservation.
- Pay for performance, not projects.
Our infrastructure needs are vast, and federal dollars will always be limited, so we need to be smart about how we allocate infrastructure funds. That means making use of “race-to-the-top” competitions to elicit the most creative, integrated, and cost-effective solutions. It means measuring success in terms of outcomes and rewarding progress toward these goals rather than dollars spent and projects completed. And it means using federal dollars to leverage private capital where possible and harnessing competition to make sure all dollars are well spent by making greater use of competitive grants and mechanisms such as reverse auctions.
- Build in equity.
Projects should be targeted to address the needs of low-income communities, such as replacing lead service pipes and abating lead paint in housing occupied by low-income residents, and cleaning up ports and freight yards adjacent to low income neighborhoods. Policy makers need to engage community stakeholders and donors to ensure that resources are available to allow disadvantaged communities to compete for infrastructure dollars on an equal footing.
Driving down costs by rightsizing projects and spending money wisely to accomplish performance objectives is good; driving down costs by lowering labor standards and ignoring hard to serve low income communities would only perpetuate inequality and environmental injustice. Infrastructure programs should support workforce development and training, and utilize prevailing wage standards and domestic sourcing requirements when applicable.
Laying a Strong Foundation
Making smart investments in clean energy and water infrastructure will not only give the economy a boost in the short term; it will build the foundation for sustainable economic growth in the long term. Study after study has shown that investments in infrastructure repay themselves many times over through jobs, business promotion and services to communities. Investing in climate-smart infrastructure will improve and protect public health by ensuring cleaner air and water in our communities, and provide the next generation with a healthier, more sustainable country.