Let's build infrastructure for the future, not just today
© Getty Images

What goals are appropriate to government and what decisions should be left to the private sector?

ADVERTISEMENT
This bedrock question underlies most disputes in modern American politics, even when the issue is framed in scientific, economic or moral terms.

However, one role that almost everyone agrees belongs to government is the planning and funding of large-scale infrastructure.

Economic development, including the free movement of people and goods, cannot occur without adequate ports, airports, roads, bridges and subways.

Cities cannot exist — or at least their citizens cannot be healthy — without clean water and effective sewage treatment.

Coastal roads are inundated without protection from both ordinary tides and extraordinary storms.

Thus the mayor who fails to remove snow from roads, neglects pothole repair, distributes impure water or fails to keep streets from flooding loses the next election. This is an American truism whether the mayor is red or blue.

We should not be surprised then that a bipartisan coalition is growing around the need for major federal investments in infrastructure during the Trump administration.

Everyone knows that our roads and bridges are, quite literally, our grandmother's infrastructure. It shouldn't take a collapse of the interstate bridge over the Mississippi River in Minnesota to remind us of that.

Many of our water and sewer lines are the same ones that served our great-grandmothers, or even our great-great-grandmothers. It shouldn't take poisoned residents in Flint, Michigan to remind us of that.

In its most recent report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ grade and estimated the cost of bringing America's infrastructure to a state of good repair by 2020 at $3.6 trillion. Because those shortcomings are so obvious to us all — and the need for jobs is so great — infrastructure investments finally make sense to everyone.

What may be less obvious is that the decrepit state of our infrastructure provides an opportunity to create lasting infrastructure that's not just suitable today, but serves social and economic needs well into the future.

Let's look forward a little farther than usual.

As the new administration considers infrastructure approaches, what if we considered how our investments could create greater financial and social value now and lower costs tomorrow, rather than simply restoring existing infrastructure

For transportation infrastructure, innovative approaches to mass transit could serve city dwellers more equitably, decrease air pollution and leave more land intact for urban forests and green spaces, which are proven to lower heart disease, asthma and other costly health problems.

For coastal protection, we now understand the importance of sediment deposits at river mouths, oyster reefs, seagrass habitats and saltmarshes in buffering sea level rise and storm surges.

Restoring this "green" infrastructure will more cheaply and sustainably augment repairs of traditional concrete, or "gray," infrastructure while also providing recreation, wildlife habitat and increased seafood harvests.

We also have opportunities to develop systems of infrastructure our great-grandparents could not have dreamed of, and protect all systems from new threats.

Our power grid must be made more resilient to natural disaster while also integrating wind and solar energy, batteries and other storage devices.

Broadband and wireless networks, in addition to the power grid, must also be resistant and resilient to cyberattack.

Finally, the proportion of Americans living in cities has increased from 15 percent in my great-grandmother's day to 63 percent today.

Most food, energy and domestic water is consumed in cities, but cities produce very little of these things. The growth of urban agriculture and urban solar power will reduce transportation and transmission needs, while improved mass transit will bring financial savings, reduced pollution and improved health and happiness from urban nature.

If you don't believe these benefits are tangible, just ask the residents of Beijing, New Delhi or Tehran, where air pollution makes breathing a health hazard. Or, if your grandmother lived in Los Angeles or Chicago early in her life, ask her.

As we invest in infrastructure, we must resist the temptation to merely repair what exists, replacing green infrastructure with gray, as our grandparents often did unwittingly.

Instead, let's employ our modern understanding of the value of preserving natural capital and look for opportunities to harness free ecosystem services as New York City has done by protecting forests in the Catskills.

The greatest efficiencies will come from thinking about the interplay between all infrastructure systems, and incorporating resilience to changing conditions and flexibility for the future.

With the enthusiasm and support of both red and blue, present and future generations can achieve a better balance of gray and green that results in more gold in everyone's pockets.

David M. Lodge is the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a professor in Cornell's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.Views expressed in his column are his alone and do not represent those of these institutions.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.