Potholes in the plans to rebuild America
© Greg Nash

In recent weeks, both presidential candidates have unveiled plans to repair and improve the country’s bridges, roads, internet and water systems. Democratic nominee Clinton says she will allocate $275 billion to the cause, including the creation of a national infrastructure bank designed to spur private investment, in what she has called the “biggest job creation program since World War II.”

Meanwhile, presidential hopeful Trump boasts that he would “at least double” Clinton’s pledged investment. Taken at face value, that means Trump would allocate more than half a trillion dollars to reviving America’s infrastructure.

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There certainly needs to be a major investment in modernizing and repairing America’s infrastructure. Far too many of us worry if the water our children drink is safe, how we will get to work despite crumbling roads and broken public transit systems or how we will get vital information without access to reliable communications technologies. An investment in the systems we rely on could resolve these issues, but it could also do so much more.

While there has been much discussion of how improvements and repairs to our infrastructure will be financed, there has been little talk of how it will be pursued. If paired with an equity agenda, such an investment could provide a bold vision for tackling the most pressing problems of our time. The decisions embedded in how we pursue a massive modernization project could provide an opportunity to address climate change and racial and economic inequity.

As we look to expand our telecommunications, water, transportation and power systems, we will be faced with an important choice. We can create good jobs and smart, green infrastructure projects that reach those that need them the most or we can simply syphon taxpayer money to big companies with no regard for accountability to the community.

Our next president has the opportunity to not only rebuild our infrastructure, but to harness that effort to rebuild our communities. In order to create an ambitious infrastructure program that rebuilds the country’s systems and provides opportunity, America’s next president will need to apply an equity frame to the entire program.

That means critically considering the impact of projects on communities and getting their input early on in the process. That also means smart planning to ensure that the program creates good jobs and opportunities for those who need them the most.

This will require the inclusion of wage and labor standards for the jobs created, targeted local hire programs that ensure opportunities reach disadvantaged communities (people of color, low-income workers, women, the formerly incarcerated, etc.), accountability to our communities and programs that build career pipelines for these working people. These policies must also incentivize and prioritize green building projects that help address climate change and the use of technology for public good.  

Presidential candidates need look no further than our American cities to see innovative examples of how infrastructure investments have advanced racial and economic equity. Cities like Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Oakland, Denver and Pittsburgh have managed to pursue major infrastructure and development projects, while incorporating community input and providing opportunities to disadvantaged community members.

Following Superstorm Sandy, New York needed to figure out how to address $19 billion in damage. The storm also shined a light on deep inequality in the city as low-income residents, communities of color and immigrants were hit hardest. In its wake the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, including Partnership for Working Families affiliate ALIGN, advocated for a range of policies that would ensure the communities hit hardest not only had access to the relief spending but that the recovery efforts did not further perpetuate pre—existing inequality.

In addition to a range of housing and environmental remediation demands, the coalition also advocated for and won a 20% hiring requirement for Sandy impacted residents and funding for pre-apprenticeship programs. Similarly, communities in Pittsburgh are advocating for a green and equitable approach toward overhauling the city's water infrastructure and communities in Oakland ensured that the redevelopment of an old Army base would bring opportunity to local residents in both the building phase of the project and the permanent operations of the trade center next to the city’s Port.

After years of success in cities, federal agencies, like the U.S. Department of Transportation have also taken steps to advance economic equity by permitting cities to set requirements for hiring locally on federally funded transportation projects.

If the presidential candidates are serious about not only improving America’s infrastructure, but about making a lasting impact on our economy, environment and communities, they need to start talking about what such an investment would look like in practice. Only by incorporating an equity agenda into our policies and systems can investments from road and transit to water and power become an investment in our people and our planet.

Nikki Fortunato Bas is the Executive Director of the Partnership for Working Families.


 

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