18 Reasons Why We Must Invest in America's Infrastructure

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18 Reasons Why We Must Invest in America's Infrastructure

The 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which collapsed during rush hour on Aug. 1, 2007. (File)

In Monday's debate, Hillary Clinton pledged to spend $275 billion investing in America's infrastructure. Donald Trump doubled down, promises lots more. On Tuesday the Senate failed to pass a bill to keep the government open because Democrats insisted—and Republicans rejecting—inclusion of a modest $220 million to repair the toxic contamination in the Flint, Michigan public water system.

Where the disconnect? That's a small example of the big question at the heart of Upgrading America, today's DC summit on American infrastructure. Everyone agrees our infrastructure is a shambles—D+ according to the Academy of Engineering. Almost everyone agrees that a lot of this infrastructure is essential for a strong America, and requires a federal role. But, as we are reminded today, for the past 30-40 years, we have systematically starved the critical systems that make our country safe, liveable, competitive—and yes, Donald, great. (Trump is right about the third world condition of our airports etc. He is wrong in refusing to support anything that would plausibly pay for improving them.)

A few painful reminders of how bad we have allowed things to get:

  • We have stored 727 million barrels of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, our insurance policy in case, say, a Middle Eastern crisis shut down Persian Gulf oil. We couldn't get it out as fast as we might need it, Energy Secretary Moniz tells us, because we don't have enough loading docks.
  • We have 200,000 water mains break in the U.S. every year. The average water pipe in Washington DC is 79 years old, meaning half are past their useful life. Cities as diverse as Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Cleveland have suffered lead poisoning from water just like Flint.
  • Enough natural gas leaks from our pipeline system every year to power 7 million homes. Every year we have a major natural gas explosion or leak that kills people or drives them from their homes.
  • Most of America's railway bridges cannot handle double stacked loads. But all our planning for handling the 45 percent increase we expect in goods movement requires such double stacking.
  • There are new challenges as well. Every year, there are now 150 cyber attacks on the U.S. energy system. The system is simply not hardened against such threats, much less against a massive electro-magnetic pulse that a single high altitude nuclear explosion might unleash.

And some economic realities, that should, but won't, sober up Trump:

  • The old way of doing things is getting steadily more expensive. A single new substation in New York City can cost a billion dollars, even thought it is needed only half the time.
  • Cities like Baltimore, after decades of not investing in their water systems, are now raising rates at 10 percent a year—their citizens will soon not be able to pay for water.
  • Even at our present replacement rate, ½ of 1 percent a year, it will cost us $650 billion every ten years to maintain our water and sewer systems. At the end of that time, the average water main will be 200 years old.
  • The wholesale price of electricity has fallen by 30 percent over the last eight years. But the cost of the wires and poles that distribute electricity has increased so fast that the retail price of electricity is up 20 percent.
  • Adding new highway improvements in Washington State at a cost of $2.5 billion are considered a "success" if they cut 90 seconds off the average commute time.

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But we have some stunning opportunities if we start thinking systemically, rather than clinging to mid-twentieth century approaches and mind-sets. Efficiency, substituting data for raw materials, and renewables for fossils, are the keys.

  • If we replaced outmoded, leaky water mains, we would immediately recapture 1.7 trillion gallons of water, 25 percent of the treated water we feed into them, water which after collection and treatment at great expense now leaks into the ground.
  • That same $1 billion NY substation became completely unnecessary when ConEdison invested $200 million in modern load smoothing strategies like energy efficiency and demand management.
  • Utilities are currently rewarded for wastefully investing more capital in power plants, wires and poles. Yet we have huge surplus capacity in our system already—New York State uses its power plants only 54 percent of the time. Using new technology to shift demand by only a few hours using energy storage could postpone the need for new capital investment.
  • The cost of renewable power continues to plummet. Over the last eight years prices fell from 41 percent (wind) to 90 percent (LED bulbs). Unsubsidized solar power in the best locations now cost a trivial 2.4 cents a kwh.
  • New prototype Class 8 trucks can save 88 percent of the fuel used by today's models, meaning we won't need as many pipelines to deliver diesel.

And these solutions, thoughtfully designed, can have a phenomenally positive impact on our economy, inequality and our sense of national dignity and unity.

  • Accelerating the repairs on our natural gas pipeline system to eliminate leaks and explosions would generate 300,000 jobs.
  • Restoring high quality public water systems may cost more than we are used to paying—but it would cost perhaps 1/1000 of our current work-around, bottled water. And we would all be equally well served.
  • In California, which has put in place climate policies that generate revenues and discourage pollution, the clean energy sector is now the state's largest single employer, with 500,000 jobs. The sector is growing six times as fast as the state's overall economy, which in turn is growing faster than the U.S. economy.

Finally, replacing wasteful consumption of fossil fuels, leaky gas and water mains, and outmoded electrical infrastructure with knowledge driven, higher performance, low carbon infrastructure and technology is, quite simply, the single most powerful economic development strategy available to us. To cite one example, (probably the biggest, but only one), there was tremendous excitement last month at the news that the economic recovery was finally reaching the average American. Median family incomes increased by 5.2 percent. But it turns out that if energy prices in 2015 had tracked the rest of the consumer price index, instead of falling 17 percent, the household benefit would have been only 3.4 percent. And if the U.S. had not invested in more efficient cars and trucks beginning in 2007, if renewables and efficiency weren't displacing natural gas and coal, then that fall in energy prices would not have occurred—and household income would have grown far less rapidly.

Investing in innovative and less wasteful, less carbon and resource intensive infrastructure, does have an upfront cost: but it pays off in so many ways that voters ought to be doubling down on Donald Trump's bid. America ought to set a goal—improving our infrastructure from D- to B+ say—and make sure that politicians of both parties get it done.

Watch John Oliver as he discusses "America's crumbling infrastructure: It's not a sexy problem, but it is a scary one":

Carl Pope

Carl Pope is the chairman of the Sierra Club.

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