Rebuild U.S. infrastructure with American metals and minerals
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The recently-enacted budget deal between the White House and Congress may signal a new willingness for bipartisan compromise in Washington. If so, no issue is more deserving or more perfectly poised for immediate action than investing in America’s crumbling infrastructure. After all, there are no “Rs and Ds” adorning the bone-jarring potholes, contaminated water pipes and rusting steel trusses. 

President Donald J. Trump has made it clear that rebuilding America’s infrastructure is among his administration’s top priorities. He is calling on the federal government to provide the spark that will ignite real and timely action from states and attract private investment dollars to help rebuild the foundation of our nation. This issue represents both a challenge and an opportunity that can no longer be deferred.

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The condition of our country’s infrastructure is grim. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently graded America’s roads, bridges, dams, ports, electric grid, water systems and other vital assets a shameful D+.  Years of neglect have come at a high cost and will spiral even further out of control if we don’t act now. ASCE estimates that by 2025 we will incur $3.9 trillion in losses to the country’s GDP and shed 2.5 million jobs if we continue with the status quo.

Thoughtfully rebuilding and modernizing our infrastructure will remedy imminent safety and reliability issues, relieve growing congestion and capacity problems, and turbo-charge our economy. If America is up to the task – and we are – we must act fast. By pledging meaningful levels of funding, we can address infrastructure’s physical and fiscal limitations while putting hundreds of thousands of Americans to work in good-paying jobs. Delivering the right projects will relieve growing pressure on our systems, cast crane booms against the skylines of our cities and towns, and open the doors of steel mills, fabrication shops, aggregate plants and mines all across the nation.

 

Such substantial new investment provides an opportunity to unlock the extraordinary wealth of American raw materials necessary to rebuild our infrastructure. We need copper and zinc to produce the untold miles of cable and wiring that run our transit systems, silver for water filtration and electrical switches, and mountains of aggregate and iron ore to produce the steel and concrete for rail tracks, tunnels supports and bridge beams. The New NY Bridge alone, a $4 billion project underway outside New York City, will require more than 220 million pounds of U.S. steel and 300,000 cubic yards of concrete to complete. We must be prepared to acquire vast quantities of natural resources to support more and bigger projects, and we must give first priority for sourcing raw materials to the U.S. 

A robust new construction program should use America’s $6.2 trillion in mineral and metal reserves first and most often to correct the imbalance we experience in this area today. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, in 2017 more than half the American consumption of 50 major mineral commodities was imported, and we have become 100 percent import-reliant on 20 key minerals and metals. Sadly, the proliferation of foreign commodity imports is an economic Achilles’ heel of our own making. An arcane, and unnecessarily protracted U.S. mine permitting process is the culprit and, much like our infrastructure assets, is in dire need of an overhaul. 

It routinely takes a decade or more for a new mine to obtain necessary permits and approvals to begin production in the U.S. If 10 years seems like an absurd amount of time, that’s because it is. Consider that Canada and Australia, countries with environmental standards comparable to our own, typically permit and approve new mines in less than three years.

As we prepare to make substantial new investments in the nation’s infrastructure and dedicate a wealth of natural resources to do it, let’s prioritize the use of materials readily available within our borders. Legislative action is required to boost spending, modernize environmental approvals and expedite procurement processes for infrastructure projects. Such action should also include reforms to our outdated, arduous mine permitting process. Streamlining these requirements will take years off the timeline for approvals and can be done sustainably and responsibly.  Just as a strong, efficient infrastructure is vital to our national interests, so too is priority usage of our own country’s vast natural resources. 

Investing in infrastructure provides a compelling reminder of the importance of building and maintaining a strong national foundation. Fortifying this foundation must include the use of domestic minerals to ensure a successful infrastructure renaissance in America.

Tom Madison is executive director of the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy. He has also served as commissioner of the NYS Department of Transportation, executive director of the NYS Thruway Authority and Canal Corporation, and U.S. Federal Highway Administrator.