by Cheryl E. Wasserman
President Trump’s most significant unmet promise was an infrastructure initiative that never happened.
Now, President-elect Joseph Biden promises to jumpstart the economy, help working families, tackle climate change, build environmental resilience and create real environmental justice. Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan for infrastructure investment can put meat on the bones of these big promises. The momentum of the first 100 days is the key to their success.
The days of major investments in our interstate highway system, dams, rail and, more recently, wastewater treatment, are long gone. Infrastructure investment consumed 4.2 percent of GDP in 1930 but fell to 1.5 percent by 2016 and continues to lag other developed countries. Crumbling and unsafe bridges and highways, and deteriorating water and wastewater treatment systems get only momentary attention despite estimates that by 2025 we need to invest an additional $2 trillion in our nation’s infrastructure. Ignoring infrastructure investment only makes repairs and upgrades more costly.
Our public health suffers when infrastructure fails us; it diminishes the potential for communities to prosper and increases sick days and gaps in both educational and economic opportunity. Flint, Mich., is not the only community where children are exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water that deprives them of their full potential by causing cognitive and other neurological impairment. Minnesota, for example, estimated that for every dollar invested in removing lead from drinking water, there would be a $2 public health and economic benefit from increased brain development and lifetime earnings potential.
Lack of adequate wastewater treatment causes serious gastrointestinal problems from pathogens in contaminated drinking water resulting in lost days at work and school in both rural and urban communities. Wastewater treatment systems overflow pollute rivers, lakes and streams every time it rains, dramatically illustrated in May 2020, when torrential rain caused untreated sewage to flow into Chicago’s public waterways.
Funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) helps state, local and tribal governments reclaim abandoned hazardous waste sites and install plantings to absorb runoff from city streets that would otherwise flood and overwhelm sewage treatment plants. These are opportunities for revitalizing urban and small-city landscapes, yet today, the EPA has half the inflation-adjusted budget it had in 1980 to address environmental challenges.
Infrastructure investment also can speed the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy. Reliance on fossil fuels contributes not only to climate change but also increased asthma and heart disease in frontline communities. Major investments are needed for smart grids, broadband and a resilient electric transmission system responsive to cleaner sources of energy. And infrastructure investment can bolster resilience to natural disasters, such as the floods, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires worsened by a changing climate.
Funding is the biggest impediment to infrastructure investment. The Trump administration’s tax “reform” blew a big hole in the federal budget, limiting our ability to invest in the future. Reinstating higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans and ensuring that corporations pay their fair share can secure funds to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.
Only a massive federal initiative can get us on the right track. Trump’s unrealistic infrastructure proposal offered just $200 billion in federal funding, intended to leverage over $1 trillion in private, state and local investment. But struggling state and local governments — many of which are close to bankruptcy — will not have funds to pay for infrastructure after the pandemic. And private-sector investment makes sense only in limited areas — usually where there is a specific private need or profit to be made.
Infrastructure investment provides a unique opportunity to meet multiple social, environmental and economic objectives. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was designed as a means to achieve such broader goals and objectives. Signed by President Nixon on Jan. 1, 1970, NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. Importantly, NEPA requires each federal agency to look beyond its narrow mandate and seek better alternatives to meet their missions. It directs them to cooperate among themselves and with state, local and tribal governments; involve the public in decision making; and consider long- and short-term implications of actions, including the loss of irreplaceable resources and opportunities to enhance beneficial uses of resources.
The Trump administration has hobbled NEPA, with revisions to the act’s implementing regulations that straitjacket innovation while excluding big-picture considerations of both climate change and environmental justice. The Biden administration should swiftly repeal Trump’s revisions of NEPA. We cannot afford to carry forward the mistakes of the past.
As we dig out from under the grip of the pandemic and address our staggering economic problems, infrastructure investment can create jobs and expand opportunity while protecting people’s health and the environment. And yes, we can build during the pandemic. The momentum of the first 100 days, coupled with true tax reform and a reversal of damaging regulatory revisions, are needed to meet this challenge.
Cheryl E. Wasserman is the president of the Environmental Governance Institute International. She is retired associate director for Policy Analysis the the EPA Office of Federal Activities, Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance and a member of the Environmental Protection Network.