For the Midwest, infrastructure needs go beyond roads and bridges

For the Midwest, infrastructure needs go beyond roads and bridges
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It was a strange reprieve from the ongoing battle between Trump and the Democratic Party when leaders talked amicably about working together on a $2 trillion national infrastructure plan.

While no one expects them to actually deliver on a plan anytime soon, those running for president should advocate on infrastructure's behalf.

If, as in 2016, the election is decided in the industrial swing states of the upper Midwest, it would be good politics — and good policy — to rebuild those communities and create new jobs in the process.

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Midwestern states have the greatest need and the most to gain by laying important infrastructures that can accelerate success in today’s economy. 

In the Midwest, rail lines, roads, bridges and sewer mains were all built at scale as the region grew and industrialized in the 20th century. As has been vividly depicted in Flint, Mich. and elsewhere, this infrastructure is aged and in need of repair. 

Incredibly, analysis by the American Society of Civil Engineers on state-level costs to repair infrastructure (structurally deficient bridges, high-hazard dams, drinking water systems, public parks, roads, schools and wastewater systems) found that, in total, all U.S. states need to spend about $1.19 trillion combined to update dangerous and/or aging infrastructure.

Almost a third ($303 billion) of those costs would need to go toward just nine Great Lakes states. For Midwestern states, this equates to about $4,077 per person in repair costs, compared to $3,590 per person in the rest of the country. 

Beyond the need to update traditional infrastructure, in today’s internet-driven global economy, access to high-speed internet is a fundamental precondition for businesses to grow and individuals to participate from almost any location.

Extending cyber infrastructure is a particularly critical component of attracting rural regions and smaller communities to the advantages of the global economy.

And as I noted elsewhere, when residents of smaller communities and older industrial communities do find purpose in today’s tech-driven economy — they are more optimistic and less susceptible to calls for nativism, protectionism and rejection of new immigrants.

Against this backdrop, the Midwest’s needs are significant. In nine states of the region, only 305 counties out of 1041 total counties (29.3 percent) are at or above the national average in population that has access to fixed broadband or mobile LTE internet.

Moreover, 162 of 1,041 counties (15.5 percent) have below 50 percent of their populations with access to broadband internet or LTE, and 563 of 1041 counties (54.1 percent) are above 50 percent but below the national average in terms of percentage of population with internet connectivity. 

While the lion’s share of Midwest communities without high-speed internet access are rural communities, 193 of the 1,041 counties (18.5 percent) with below-average internet access include urban metros (counties, large fringe metro counties, medium metro counties and small metro counties), and 25 of those 193 urban counties had under 50 percent of their population with LTE or broadband access, displaying large gaps in access even in more dense urban contexts.

The region’s leadership during the industrial era also left costly legacies in the form of polluted and abandoned industrial sites and toxic waterways, items which must be cleaned up and repurposed as platforms for new economic activity and growth.

As I commented previously, nine upper Midwest states contain 41.3 percent of all Federal Brownfield Sites.

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Other costly legacies of the industrial era unique to the region include 31 toxic areas of concern in the Great Lakes. Today, these sites are slowly being cleaned and turned into assets as a foundation for new water-based economic development along the nation’s “Freshwater Coast."

This work has been aided by Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which since 2009 had seen the federal government spend over $2.3 billion on more than 3,500 projects and survived several attempts by the Trump administration to zero it out thanks to strong bipartisan support in Congress.

A significant bipartisan infrastructure bill that attends to the unique challenges of the cities and towns that powered America’s rise — and that today face acute challenges — would go a long way toward enhancing the Midwest's prospects for economic success. If our current leaders can’t deliver, hopefully the next ones will! 

John Austin is director of the Michigan Economic Center and a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, Chicago Council on Global Affairs and W.E. Upjohn Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @John_C_Austin. University of Michigan’s Jack Farrell contributed to this article.