Even before the pandemic and associated social and economic fallout, we were long overdue for a national infrastructure plan, and it is heartening to see that this is a shared priority of the new Administration and leaders in both parties of Congress. Done right, a modern infrastructure plan can create jobs and investment throughout the country in an equitable way, strike a real blow for the environment and the fight against climate change, and set us up for stronger economic growth for years to come.
I offer two songs for inspiration here, the classic Build me up Buttercup by The Foundations and Bruce Springsteen’s Working on the Highway. The core elements of my broad-based plan follow below, focusing on “traditional” infrastructure projects as well as key investments for the 21st century that prioritize equitable treatment for disadvantaged urban communities and rural America, and account for what we have learned from the pandemic.
Universal broadband access: I start here because in many ways this already is the highway of the future, and that only has become clearer since the pandemic. Making broadband fully available to low-income, disadvantaged, and rural communities is critical to fighting inequality, increasing opportunity, and bolstering the environment.
Roads, bridges, rail and air: We are long overdue for investing in these traditional infrastructure functions, and we should do it in a way that looks ahead too.
- For roads and bridges, that means including GPS and making them driverless and electrical transit friendly.
- For the airspace, we need to speed up the upgrade of the “flight grid” that air traffic control uses to coordinate flights. This will increase efficiency for all players and help the environment by significantly reducing unnecessary fuel usage.
- For rail, I have a more radical suggestion. Unlike the interstate highways and airspace, the rails are owned by a patchwork of private freight companies and public transit entities, with no central mechanism to make them work fairly and efficiently together. We should use eminent domain to make the rails part of the national infrastructure to maintain and regulate them uniformly on par with our other major transit modes. We can then lease the rails back to both private operators and public transit agencies (including Amtrak), which can pay for the investment and free up the market to better serve both freight and passenger rail transit needs.
- With the same level of priority as highways in rural communities, we need to invest in public transit in metro areas, which in the past has often gotten short shrift compared to roads.
- And lastly in this category, we need to invest in projects like the CREATE program in Chicago that enable roads and rails to work efficiently together. Like the other steps above, this will do wonders for both efficiency and the environment.
A 21st century power grid: Modernizing our power grid nationwide so that it can seamlessly utilize traditional and “green” sources of power will make the system more efficient, resilient, secure, and environmentally friendly throughout the country.
The Post Office: 2020 reminded us that the Post Office remains a critical part of our nation’s infrastructure. We should recognize that by treating it as a core national asset, properly investing in and modernizing its traditional functions while adding features that can connect people to other key government services (e.g., Zoom kiosks, voting drop box sites). We already have this nationwide network of postal locations, and we should fully utilize them as a public service.
Public buildings and systems: The pandemic has underscored the need to invest in federal, state, and local government buildings and systems so that the courts and other key government functions have state-of-the-art energy and air filtration systems and have full remote access capability.
Incentivizing private investment: As with public buildings, we should use this opportunity to subsidize businesses, building owners, and homeowners to upgrade to state-of-the-art energy and air filtration systems.
Trees, national parks, and related: We cannot forget our critical environmental infrastructure here, for all of the public health and public enjoyment reasons as well as the essential role they play in preserving the environment and fighting climate change.
Public health: Last and most definitely not least, if we learned anything from 2020, it is that our public health infrastructure is critical to all of us wherever we are. It should receive that level of priority in the larger infrastructure efforts.
Those are the core elements of the “We’re Better Than This” infrastructure plan. While there is no doubt this will be involve many, many billions of up- front costs, few other investments can have this kind of payoff in both immediate and long-term economic impact while also bringing incalculable benefits in the critical fight against climate change.