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Infrastructure: A chance to build on America’s promise


As America embarks on a debate over how best to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, there is agreement, sadly, only on the urgent need to fix our bridges, rails, water pipes, drainage systems, public facilities and transportation hubs.

President Trump and congressional Democrats are poised to clash over sharply differing visions of how to get the job done — including where to find the $1 trillion to finance the effort. 

{mosads}We can only hope that they will agree on a responsible approach. And that means all projects must be developed with public input, consistent with environmental protections.


Some of the starkest recent examples of infrastructure failure include the Minnesota bridge collapse, the degradation of the New York subway and the contaminated and untested drinking water in millions of American homes.

According to the latest infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers:

  1. Of the United States’ more than 600,000 bridges, almost 4 in 10 are at least 50 years old, and 9.1 percent were structurally deficient in 2016. Some 188 million trips were made across these bridges each day.
  2. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States, wasting more than 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water. An estimated $1 trillion will be necessary to meet demand over the next 25 years.
  3. Since September 2010, counties that are home to 96 percent of the population (nearly 309 million) have been affected by federally declared weather-related disasters, severely straining  infrastructure.
  4. The nation’s transit systems have been chronically underfunded, resulting in a $90 billion backlog for repairs.

From George Washington onward, our leaders have used infrastructure as a rallying cry. Overcoming infrastructure challenges, in fact, led in part to our constitutional system of government, according to historians. Later, FDR touted a national public works effort in response to the Great Depression, and Eisenhower signed funding for the interstate highway system to serve a growing and prosperous nation.

We need a new grand vision in the 21st century as we face a future of unprecedented challenges ranging from rapidly advancing technology and a population expected to grow by 70 million by 2050 to global temperature rise and climate change effects.

This vision would emphasize people and the environment — to fix today’s problems, yes, but also to foster more access to clean power and energy, increase economic mobility, make communities more resilient, support fair-wage jobs, improve health, and help address the racial segregation and income disparity embedded in policies of the past.

Mr. Trump is about to release a long-awaited infrastructure plan of his own amid high expectations, especially considering his self-described reputation as “the builder president.” Like presidents before him, he’s trying to unite the electorate around a revitalization and job-creation effort.


But Trump’s initial rhetoric about a $1 trillion investment has morphed into what appears to be a $200 billion package of tax breaks and incentives, federal “seed” money.

We need commitment to what we have laid out in a set of principles that we see as a necessary part of any infrastructure bill.

Infrastructure must (1) deliver economic, social, and environmental benefits through public and private dollars; (2) bring innovation to efficient water and energy systems; (3) require public input and review while ensuring compliance with environmental policy; (4) include flexible funding allocated for local and regional planning, (5) invest in climate resilience projects and smart technology; and (6) promote clean energy jobs.

The American public agrees that any attempt by the administration to use infrastructure as an excuse to go after core environmental issues is a mistake.  According to a new national poll, 94 percent of Americans, including 92 percent of Trump voters, say the country can build infrastructure while keeping environmental protections in place.

Part of that includes adherence to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the government to consider less environmentally harmful alternatives to federal projects. It is also key to allowing citizens to participate in the decision-making process.

These simple concepts represent a national commitment and NEPA has a long list of success stories. We undermine it at our peril.

The United States is in the lower third of the top 20 countries in infrastructure spending in relation to Gross National Product, spending just 2.4 percent as opposed to China’s 8.8 percent.

For the sake of the country, we need a plan that will live in history as a turning point  — and not for creating yet another barrier to living up to our national promise.

Shelley Poticha is managing director of the Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group with more than three million members and online activists.

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