Repair Our Crumbling Infrastructure the Right Way
Seventy thousand bridges in America are structurally deficient. Fixing this and other critical problems with our national infrastructure is a policy no-brainer.
In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama unveiled his “fix it first” plan, a $50 billion program for repairing the nation’s roads, highways, bridges and transit systems. Although this is a step in the right direction, the plan should also meet the concerns of the newly emerging transportation-justice movement, about which we have heard nothing from the president so far.
The Obama administration last directed major funds toward infrastructure as a part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The government spent more than $31 billion, with a focus on “shovel-ready” projects.
By contrast, the new fix-it-first plan would spend most of the initial funds on sites that are “most in need of repair,” according to a summary the White House shared with the New York Times. A smaller portion, $10 billion, would go toward a national infrastructure bank. Finally, the administration has vowed to cut red tape and, according to The Hill, to “encourage public-private partnerships, leveraging the initial government funding to increase private sector spending on transportation.”
These proposals are a good start, but the plan should also be evaluated for fairness.
In fact the phrase “fix it first” originated with activists primarily concerned with fairness. These are community groups, faith-based organizations, labor unions, and other activists throughout the country who see themselves as part of a movement to ensure that public transit services meet the needs of the actual public. They are drawing attention to the fact that effective public transportation is a vital part of an integrated social justice agenda.
In the transit justice community, “fix it first” means that the government should prioritize maintaining existing roads and transit resources over spending money on widening roads or building new expressways that encourage sprawl.
That the administration has borrowed language of transportation advocates is a good sign. But it should go further. In this latest push for infrastructure spending, the message should not only be “fix it first” but also “fix it fair.”
How can we ensure that the interests of fairness are taken into account? I propose three criteria: infrastructure investment should embrace equity, both in its planning and in terms of the communities that it will benefit; it should provide good jobs; and it should increase competitiveness.
While we spend 1.7 percent of our GDP on transportation infrastructure, China spends 9 percent.
Equity demands that we avoid transportation mistakes of the past. In places such as Minneapolis and Oakland, plans for light rail have bypassed or priced out riders from poor neighborhoods. Similarly, light rail development in some communities has come at the expense of bus and paratransit riders—disabled and elderly riders who rely on specialized public transportation services. Such injustices occur when poor communities (both rural and urban), communities of color, and other groups that depend on public transportation are excluded from municipal planning and development.
Grassroots organizations have sprung up around the country to represent local interests and fight for transportation justice. It shouldn’t be difficult for policymakers to consult groups such as Community Labor United in Boston or Urban Habitat in the Bay Area and better serve all members of the community.
Second, President Obama’s fix-it-first policy offers an opportunity for government and the private sector to work together to provide a real boost to working families. Our standard should be clear: all new projects should guarantee workers family-supporting wages, good benefits, and proper health and safety regulations at worksites. Project contractors should also be required to hire from the local population. As the Transportation Equity Network has argued, “All major projects funded . . . [should] include community benefits agreements that ensure that low-income people, people of color, and women have a fair shot at the jobs created.”
Last but not least, a new infrastructure agenda should promote economic competitiveness. The importance of infrastructure to American business should make transportation funding a bipartisan cause. But it has become hostage to austerity and Republican intransigence.
The Obama administration has tried to structure fix it first so as to bypass Congressional gridlock. Instead, the White House plans to go directly to the states to map out the financing of repair and construction projects. This is the right idea. Congress is too dysfunctional to come up with a solution in time to save the most sensitive parts of our crumbling infrastructure, which is so clearly in the nation’s best interest.
We compete with China, India, Germany, and myriad other countries that have no trouble overcoming partisan strife to keep their roads, rails, and bridges in good shape. While we spend 1.7 percent of our GDP on transportation infrastructure, China spends 9 percent. Other countries also have strategic plans for future projects of national significance, while the United States has floundered without a blueprint.
Metropolitan transportation projects should also take a long-term view and focus on enhancing regional competitiveness. Transportation investment should include strategies for reducing carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, cutting down on traffic, and holding contractors accountable to employment and environmental standards.
Additionally, to push the country forward, we need a heavy emphasis on funding and planning for mass transit. A recent study from Infrastructure USA notes [PDF] that of America’s hundred largest metropolitan regions, only 30 have light rail or subway systems. A highway can only transport a fraction of the people a subway system can. Building new mass transit systems is a more efficient use of transportation dollars and will help attract more investment to a given region.
President Obama deserves our support in pushing for quick action to fix our nation’s roads, rails, and transit systems. But the administration can also do itself a favor by approaching fix it first from a transportation-justice perspective. A fair plan will help to repair America’s economy, alongside its bridges.