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OPINION: How to move from a wish list to a national plan in adapting America’s infrastructure

by Jesse M Keenan | Tulane University
Monday, 5 April 2021 17:00 GMT

FILE PHOTO: An empty freeway intersection is seen in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, California, U.S., April 20, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Climate-friendly infrastructure networks will require government co-ordination, private-sector investment and scientific guidance. Raising the money is just the start

Jesse M. Keenan is an associate professor and social scientist at Tulane University’s School of Architecture, whose research focuses on climate change adaptation and the built environment.

Depending on who you ask, America needs between $2 trillion to ‘fix’ and $20 trillion to ‘upgrade’ its infrastructure. The bill just for delivering safe and clean drinking water is around $2 trillion. The American Society of Civil Engineers argues that $2 trillion is a mere down payment for a short-term fix through the balance of the decade. So, by most accounts, President Biden’s $2-trillion infrastructure proposal is more of a modest legislative wish list than an integrated national infrastructure plan.

However, those who argue that this agenda underinvests in the challenge do not appreciate the barriers facing the design and development of infrastructure. The more immediate challenge for the Biden Administration is to shape the resulting Congressional legislation into a national infrastructure plan that holistically transforms not only physical assets but also those institutions that develop, manage and invest in infrastructure.

A national plan requires the integration of federal, state, and local policies and resources. A majority of infrastructure spending in America is not the responsibility of the federal government, but rather the obligation of state and local governments. Local governments are increasingly reliant on private-sector participation not only in the municipal bond market but also in the delivery of projects. These governments simply do not have the institutional capacity for large-scale project delivery, much less the capacity to advance technologically sophisticated resilience engineering projects.

Mobilizing private-sector investments in climate-sensitive infrastructure is going to require a more sophisticated tax policy approach that supports tax equity financing and accelerated depreciation on resilience-driven assets, particularly if they serve underserved communities. At the same time, a national plan can put roadblocks on public-private infrastructure models that do not equitably share revenue and cost burdens that are not in the public interest.

A national plan will require a coordinated regulatory agenda that addresses substantive legal barriers. Infrastructure producers face a rigid environmental regulatory system that adds time and costs to project developments without fully weighing a broader array of human and environmental welfare benefits. This means investing in the development of scientific indicators that measure infrastructure impact and performance, including greenhouse gas emissions and climate risk reduction. Public procurement rules will need to be changed to support a supply chain that is able to deliver the best value in terms of climate-innovative goods and services - not just the lowest-cost bid.

The federal government is going to have to invest in the science and engineering that will support a vast array of performance and reliability standards for the design and management of infrastructure. For instance, storm sewers built today to last 100 years will have to be able to account for extreme precipitation events in the future. Nearly every state has a different projection on what these future design events should be and most do not account for climate change.

Standardizing infrastructure resilience and design standards will require not only empirical science but also financial resources to incentivize state and local compliance. This includes everything from labor-force training for code inspectors to waivers of cost-share requirements for federal grants. The details matter. Most people do not realize that America does not currently have enough code inspection officials to support a large-scale development of infrastructure.

The final hurdle to a national infrastructure plan is the formulation of a geographic plan that provides principles on where to invest and disinvest. This is critically important for giving investment priority to environmental justice and highly vulnerable communities. At the same time, managing the orderly relocation of communities, businesses and infrastructure is an unpleasant reality. Banks and investors are beginning to draw lines on where to invest and disinvest without the benefit of scientific or policy transparency on where climate change is expected to exacerbate the risks of flooding and sea level rise. Governments must quickly catch up to this process of ‘bluelining’ to assert some discipline over the process to avoid unnecessary collateral damage.

Simply drawing a line on a map will not be sufficient to advance the procedural justice demands of engaging communities to design their own destiny. Yet, ignoring the reality that some places are simply not technically defensible undermines the government’s stewardship of public resources and human security.

Biden’s infrastructure wish list is a strong first step for moving America’s economy and built environment toward a more sustainable and equitable future. There are extremely tough political, economic and moral questions about where to invest and where to disinvest. Raising the money from Congress will be the easy part – actually spending the money is going to require a truly integrated national infrastructure plan.






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