Part 1: Infrastructure Modernization – What Should a Modern Infrastructure Be?

Bill Becker offers a three-part series on what the nation’s infrastructure should include in this age of global climate change, and the holes in the infrastructure plan released by the Trump Administration.

The United States is a first world country with a third world infrastructure. That in effect is the judgment of people who ought to know, including the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). In its most recent report card for 16 different types of infrastructure, the ASCE gave us a D+.

The last time our infrastructure scored any better was in 1988, when it was given a lowly C. It’s not only that many of our bridges, dams and waterworks were built before many of us were alive and that much of our infrastructure is crumbling from a bad case of deferred maintenance.  It’s also that our infrastructure is exposed to stresses that did not exist and were not even contemplated when they were designed and built.

Think of Katrina, Rita, Alex, Bonnie, Hermine, Matthew, Maria, Harvey, Irma and Maria, just a few of the tropical storms and hurricanes that have hit the United States in recent years like horsepersons of the apocalypse. Warm ocean waters gave them much of their power. Or the floods, fires and mudslides this year in California, products of intense drought followed by intense rainfall.  Or the record floods last year across Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas, caused by extreme precipitation. Or the drought in the Dakotas and Montana. Or the road-buckling heat as the United States keeps setting new temperature records. We wouldn’t be setting so many records and seeing so much damage if these were the results of normal weather.

Overall, there was good news and bad news in President Trump’s proposal to leverage $1.5 trillion in infrastructure improvements. To paraphrase a great American humorist, everybody has talked about our infrastructure, but no one has done anything about it. The ASCE warns that unless that changes, the national economy will lose $7 trillion; families will lose an average of $3,400 annually; and our workforce will be deprived of 2.5 million jobs. So, it’s good that Trump has raised the visibility of the issue again.

There are several types of bad news, however. For one thing, Trump has proposed only part of the $2 trillion the ASCE estimates we need over 10 years. And although he offered few details in his State of the Union address, it is clear that much of the $1.5 trillion will have to come not from the federal government, but from state, local and private investments. One would assume that because of budget constraints, some states and localities – particularly those in low-income areas — may not be able to put up a significant amount of the money needed for improvements in their jurisdictions. Others apparently would have to raise their share of the costs with new taxes. Insofar as private investment is involved, we are likely to see more road tolls and user fees to help cover costs. Some people will not be happy about that.

Because Trump has not offered details, the best indications of his plan might be reflected in the federal funding reforms his Department of Transportation implemented last year in the so-called INFRA program. The program guidelines invited states to find innovative ways to expedite environmental reviews. This is all to the good so long as faster reviews do not result in poorer environmental safeguards.

However, INFRA’s funding criteria contain nothing about the need for infrastructure projects to take the growing impacts of climate change into account. In fact, in his vendetta against all things Obama, Trump has already rescinded a requirement that agencies consider the best available climate science when they site infrastructure projects. Obama’s sensible idea was to make sure that infrastructure was not built where it would be vulnerable to sea level rise or flooding.

The climate impacts anticipated by scientists already have begun. Sea level rise is accelerating dramatically in some states such as Florida and North Carolina. The entire Atlantic coastline, where many of our largest cities are located, is vulnerable.  A peer-reviewed study by the Union of Concerned Scientists has found that more than 90 cities on U.S coasts are already fighting chronic flooding and the number will rise to more than 170 cities, large and small, in the next 20 years. That is well within the lifetime of infrastructure built today.

You would think that common sense would keep cities from locating infrastructure in areas vulnerable to flooding, but our cities have shown little hesitation to build in hazard zones. Obama’s requirement that localities consider future vulnerabilities was necessary because the past is no longer prologue in regard to weather stresses. For example, floodplains have been defined traditionally to protect communities from 100-year floods. Now it is not unusual for communities to be hit with 500-year or even 1,000-year events.

More generally, Trump has taken a slash-and-burn approach to environmental safeguards during his first year as president. The safeguards related to climate change have been hit especially hard. His approach has been to rescind anything Obama put in place with no regard for the consequences. There is no more reckless an approach to regulatory reform. It pulls the flowers out with the weeds. Also, advocates for middle- and low-income Americans point out, the Trump Administration’s war against regulations often benefits corporations while risking the health and even the lives of middle Americans.

No one wants cement trucks lined up and steelworkers sitting idle while federal bureaucrats process permits. But environmental requirements were created to protect public health and safety, a high priority in its own right. If any are outdated or unnecessarily burdensome, they should be rewritten or surgically removed from the federal rulebook. And despite concerns about big government, one way to speed up permitting is to make sure that the federal agencies charged with environmental reviews have sufficient staff and resources to handle the workload.

So, the ball is now in Congress’s court. Republicans and Democrats alike should make sure that the federal, state and local governments do not jeopardize human health and safety for the sake of speed. And for the sake of cutting the strings attached to federal funding, Congress should restore Obama’s floodplain directive and require that federal investments overall make our infrastructure and communities more resilient – in other words, able to withstand current and anticipated threats, from cyber-attacks to the growing impacts of global climate change.

February 20th, 2018|Commentary|