Column: President Biden should go big on infrastructure

For the Valley News
Published: 2/13/2021 10:20:07 PM
Modified: 2/13/2021 10:20:04 PM

In President Joe Biden’s recent inaugural speech, he listed a convergence of societal-level challenges facing the nation. He appropriately focused on the most pressing: containing the spread of the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. His next initiative could result in advancing the climate change, economic and justice agendas that are the priorities of his new administration by strategically crafting a comprehensive public works bill.

America has a history of such monumental and consequential undertakings.

Almost 65 years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower came before a joint session of Congress and proposed the greatest public works effort in the history of the United States. On June 26, 1956, Congress responded by passing the Federal-Aid Highway Act (also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act) that provided the funding to develop the nation’s interstate highway system, officially the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Within 20 years, almost 90% of the planned 41,012 miles had been completed.

This vision of a nationwide transportation network literally changed the landscape of the country, allowing the expansion of the suburbs and assuring the primacy of the automobile as the dominant mode of transportation.

In 1957, the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial space satellite. Then, on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into space, the first human to orbit the globe. Less than two months later, President John F. Kennedy set a national priority of putting a man on the moon within the decade.

Just eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Kennedy’s goal was met when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. This success was followed by equally impressive engineering and applied scientific accomplishments, from the space shuttle program to probes on Mars, the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station.

What can we learn from these two initiatives? Both were presented within the context of the Cold War and were presented, in part, as actions necessary for national security.

Eisenhower, being the experienced soldier, realized that an extensive and maintained road system could allow for rapid defensive deployment and citizen evacuation in the event of nuclear attack. Kennedy also focused on national security and civil defense initiatives due to the perceived threat of communism and nuclear conflict. It was from such a perspective that he framed the moon mission as “a great new American enterprise.”

However, both presidents presented their visions as initiatives that would enhance the economic health of the nation.

Eisenhower saw the need to prepare for a future with a larger population that required a growing economy. The interstate system would provide jobs and assure a more efficient flow of goods and services. Kennedy, in a speech at Rice University, said the “growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”

Not only were both presidents responding to a perceived military threat, but they were considering the economic future, even though the fruits of their decisions would not be realized for years to come. Both had clarity of vision and showed leadership in translating that vision to action.

Today’s threat: Failing infrastructure

Many would argue that Americans today are also facing real, existential threats to our national security, in the form of a changing climate, an economy dependent on fossil fuels and a system that has historically disadvantaged many in our society.

To shift the systems that have brought us to this convergence of challenges, an effort on the scale of that proposed and accomplished by Eisenhower and Kennedy can begin the process of again changing the landscape of the nation.

During the 1996 presidential race, both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot called for a significant increase in federal investment over what President George H.W. Bush had done in what many economists called the foundation of the nation’s economy: transportation and communication infrastructure, as well as water and sewer systems.

This was echoed later by President Barack Obama, who launched the Build America Investment Initiative that instructed executive branch agencies to take steps to bring private sector capital and investment to bear on improving our nation’s roads, bridges and broadband networks. In some ways, this echoed Bush’s 1992 Infrastructure Privatization executive order.

President Biden can go many steps forward by crafting an approach that focuses on building resilience into new public works projects to withstand the disturbances that come from extreme weather events due to a shifting climate. This can, at the same time, create a better transportation infrastructure that takes advantage of renewable energy sources and supports private initiatives, such as General Motors’ recent announcement that it will have an all-electric fleet by 2035.

Such a step would lead to the creation of an electrified recharging infrastructure across the nation. This can be complemented by urban multi-modal transportation that provides options for easy and accessible alternatives to short intra-city travel distances, with efficiency driven by smart technology. Longer distance inter-city travel has much opportunity for expansion by upgrading transportation corridors to support high-speed rail, which is already common in many other parts of the world.

These and other public works challenges can take the uncertain climate future into account while significantly reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Bipartisan support possible

A well-crafted public works bill can draw bipartisan support. There is no state or territory that is not facing degrading infrastructure.

In 2016, Michigan’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission summed up the general acknowledgement by other states that the country’s transportation, water, energy and communication infrastructure is in very bad shape.

This perspective has been supported by Obama’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, who described a “massive infrastructure deficit” that would cripple the U.S. economy.

A recent report by the Volcker Alliance estimates that deferred maintenance on U.S. infrastructure already exceeds $1 trillion, or 5% of the U.S gross domestic product, and that ignoring this reality is a national security issue. This was echoed in a report by the Strategic Foresight Initiative facilitated by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As many analysts have recently posited, Biden must go big or go home. An effort on the scale of Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s visions for the future is needed now to address the existential challenges of the 21st century. Create a public works initiative that supports a more sustainable economy, retrains and puts people to work, moves us to a more secure energy future and improves the health of our communities and our natural resources.

This effort must also have as an overarching priority addressing the historic inequity of past infrastructure decisions that limited access by marginalized communities across the nation to communication technology, mobility options and clean air and water.

Michael Simpson, of Norwich, is the director of the Resource Management and Administration graduate degree program at Antioch University New England in Keene, N.H.

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy