The Candidates Agree: America’s Aging Infrastructure Needs a Fix

by |November 4, 2016
Ongoing work to connect Loop 303 with Interstate 10 in Goodyear, Arizona. Arizona Department of Transportation/Creative Commons

Ongoing work to connect Loop 303 with Interstate 10 in Goodyear, Arizona. Photo: Arizona Department of Transportation/Creative Commons

As we head toward the polls on Nov. 8, clearly there are many issues Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump disagree on, from taxes to immigration to foreign policy. Yet one issue that both have consistently raised throughout the 2016 campaign, and appear to agree upon, is the  need to improve American’s infrastructure. Clinton has repeatedly said that investing in infrastructure would create jobs and be a boon for the middle class, while Trump, likening our nation’s airports to those from a third-world country, has cited poor infrastructure as one reason why he believes our country has such “tremendous problems.” But whoever becomes president, investments in our nation’s infrastructure need to be done with an eye toward improving livability and quality of life for the residents of the U.S.

Looking at their policy plans, Clinton has called for $275 billion in infrastructure spending over a five-year period, while Trump stated that he would spend twice that amount. These proposed investments are envisioned to go toward the repair and modernization of our nation’s roads, bridges, ports, utility and communication systems. And the primary driver is economic development, via job creation and improvements in system efficiencies that will save money and increase national competitiveness.

While the importance of infrastructure to our country’s economic future is undeniable, infrastructure strategies and investments also shape our country’s environment, and the health and well-being of our citizens. When we choose to upgrade a transportation system, we need not only create opportunities for economic growth. We can also invest in a system that reduces air, water and noise pollution, favors walking and other health-promoting activities, and helps make neighborhoods more vibrant—or we can choose to invest in a system that fragments existing communities (a new expressway perhaps?), exposes local residents to harmful pollution, and reinforces segregation and inequalities.

There is also a choice of scales for infrastructure investments. Although investments in large scale projects are often highlighted, opportunities to invest in “localized” or neighborhood-scale projects can also contribute to economic vitality and local jobs. Investments in community-level solar farms or roof-top installations can help contribute to our country’s energy needs, while also reducing reliance on aging nuclear and fossil fuel power plants and adding system resilience in the face of centralized supply disruptions. Likewise, investments in the establishment, or re-establishment, of regional food supply systems can assist with local business development, improve community access to fresh produce and help bolster district food security. Thus, as a society, we need to decide, not only the amount of funds to invest in infrastructure, but also the scales to design and operate that infrastructure. Will we invest in large-scale systems or choose a judicious mix of localized and large infrastructure?

Choices can also be made about whether to invest in the restoration or upgrading of familiar, established technologies, or to invest in new approaches that make use of emerging systems. As an example, urban green infrastructure programs—which use vegetation in the form of street trees, rain-gardens and green roofs to soak up rain that falls within our city areas—are an alternative to patching and repairing the network of underground pipes built to do this in the past. By cooling cities during heat waves, green infrastructure has the added benefit of reducing stress on our electric grid and making urban neighborhoods more walkable and healthy.

Lastly, it’s important to recognize that new ways of thinking about infrastructure can help reduce some of the investments needed to bring current systems to acceptable, operational states. Car-sharing can alleviate the congestion crises facing many of our communities, while conservation of water and energy at the household level can lower demand in areas where utilities are stressed. Thus, proposed investments in public awareness campaigns that help promote behavioral change are also vital to this national discussion.

Once infrastructure decisions are made, they are locked in place, often for decades, sometimes for centuries. Recognizing this fact, there is an urgency to think in new ways, rather than simply stick with established practices and systems. So ask not whether your next President will invest in infrastructure, but ask how.

Co-authors: Patricia Culligan, Yingling Fan, Ben Orlove, Anu Ramaswami, Ted Russell

The authors of this op-ed are leaders of a national research network that is dedicated to exploring infrastructure solutions to environmental sustainable, healthy and livable cities. For more information visit: http://www.sustainablehealthycities.org/about/

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