Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Building Bridges - In Only One Sense of the Term

By Michael AlterPublished February 25, 2016

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Amongst all the talk about hot button issues like criminal justice reform, immigration reform, and foreign policy strategies, Michael Alter takes a look at one of the least glamorous - but one of the most important - parts of being an elected official: infrastructure development.
    Throughout this election cycle, the various candidates and parties have disagreed over many issues, some more so (and more personally) than others. But of the small number of points on which they agree, one of the most basic is infrastructure. Every single candidate running for president is promising major investments in America's infrastructure, and it's quite obvious to see why: public works projects are something that most, if not all, politicians agree is the government's responsibility to execute. They provide easy opportunities for federal dollars to come back to states, they offer employment to both large construction firms and local suppliers, and they make future business and communication easier.

    So, it should be a no brainer, right? Well, there are actually a few considerations that must factor into any decision to go forward with a project. For one, there has to be enough money to pay for it; few things are worse for a politician than sinking millions of dollars into a project and then leaving a derelict hunk of concrete in the ground, a lasting testament to government inefficiency and political ineptitude, with their name on it. Funding those projects also requires taxes; some countries have specific levies to pay for specific projects, like Ireland's water charges to upgrade the country's water systems. Given the massive protests over those charges, leaders might want to think twice about not going into a new project full steam ahead.

    Another consideration is time. For the residents of Flint, Michigan, time seems to have stopped for them, leaving them stranded in a limbo of deadly consequences. The fact that their water pipes were lined with lead was an issue before this recent crisis, but with the addition of the more corrosive water into them, it dramatically escalated the harm. This crisis is going to take a fairly long time to fix because, unlike social legislation that can remove discriminatory practices with relative speed, infrastructure needs to be physically built. Rome might not have been built in a day, but its emperors certainly tried to make it so when their popularity was at stake.

    A third consideration is the environment. This has changed markedly in the last half-century; who knew what an environmental impact statement was in 1964, and who cared? For the residents of Flint, and now Hoosick Falls, NY, they care very much. The EPA and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) have had a significant amount of catching up to do in the small upstate NY town where PFOA, a synthetic building material linked to cancer, was found in the water outside a French-owned manufacturing plant. Village residents have had to rely on bottled water recently, with the local supermarket providing them for free, but the powers at be have a lot to answer for. The DEC and EPA have different levels of toxicity recommendations for PFOA, and the water contamination fits the EPA level but not the DEC level. The mayor of the town and the State Health Commissioner issued misleading statements in the past, indicating the water was safe to drink while today they are advising against it, all the while assuring the public that this is not "New York's version of Flint." While it is true that the scale of the malfeasance is vastly different and the main negligent actor was a government in one and a corporation in the other, a core issue remains the same: a lack of governmental accountability for the environment and health directly related to the state's infrastructure and building requirements.

    The largest infrastructure project in NYS history is currently ongoing: the construction of a third tunnel to supply NYC with water so the first two tunnels can be repaired. The NYC water system is one of the largest in the world, supplying nine million people. It is also one of the cleanest systems, as a significant amount of land further upstate is set aside specifically for the city's water. This was why former Mayor Mike Bloomberg was seen as weak on fracking: he was in favor of building drilling infrastructure across NYS's portion of the Marcellus Shale, except in NYC's watershed zone. NY is therefore clearly committed to long-term projects, but that's in a case where one project is affecting the lives of at least 9 million people. Political pressure like that is hard to come by, especially since this project was started in 1970. Five decades of commitment is the kind of effort necessary for large projects to be successful, which is why they so rarely are in an age when immediate poll numbers are one's saving grace or death knell.

    It is undeniable this country needs significant improvements in its infrastructure; bridges are rated as structurally deficient, railways are grossly underutilized, airports are often relics of decades past. Everyone can get behind the idea of infrastructure as a fundamental responsibility of government and a net positive for society. The question becomes the will to execute: will elected officials actually push for needed projects when they won't be in office to reap any reward? Will the public allow them to spend billions on a project whose goals are framed in terms of years and perhaps decades when they are economically hurting today? The candidates might talk a big game now, but when they actually have to start governing they will have difficult, often unpopular decisions to make. One would think infrastructure wouldn't be one of them; turns out, it's not as simple as one would think.