June 14, 2021
Normally the tedium of an inside-the-Beltway debate about infrastructure makes even die-hard Washington watchers completely zone out – but this year is different.
People are paying attention now because they know our economic future is as much at stake as our nation’s roadways and bridges. And they are closely following the news out of Washington when they see the Biden Administration’s proposal – on the heels of the latest COVID package – carry such an enormous price tag to fund projects that bear no resemblance to any definition of “infrastructure.”
Americans know when someone is trying to snow them, and even those who have never thought about what actually qualifies as infrastructure know inherently that it is not the laundry list of social projects and special interests the Administration proposed. Infrastructure is tough to define but easy to understand: at its core, infrastructure is the complicated systems and networks that we all use every day that make modern life possible. We all need them, and so we build them together so we can all benefit from them.
Transportation and transit systems like roads, bridges, tunnels, subways, railways and ports? Sure. Water and sewer systems? Absolutely. Energy transmission and electrical grids? Yes. Job training programs, government buildings and senior care services? Not so fast.
Energy is precisely the kind of infrastructure that Americans want our leaders to invest in. Why? Gas prices at a seven-year high is a strong reminder that making pipelines more secure is a worthwhile investment. And when Americans can’t heat or cool their homes or call a loved one for help because the state can’t import enough energy to meet demand – like California’s rolling blackouts – or an unexpected extreme weather event causes widespread power disruptions – like last year’s polar vortex – they acutely understand the need for more reliability and resiliency across the electric grid.
Other, more subtle reminders of energy infrastructure’s importance: empty storefronts and massive unemployment claims. Energy industries employ 6.8 million workers, including 2.4 million in energy efficiency. Unfortunately, one of the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic has been clean energy. This sector had been one of the fastest for job growth before the pandemic—in every state, across almost every income bracket, so it is worth figuring out how to put this industry back on track.
Polls consistently show Americans of every political orientation now believe we need to reduce emissions and invest in clean energy to address climate change. Shoring up the nation’s infrastructure should certainly include initiatives like more efficient technologies, a smarter energy grid powered by more clean energy, and a cleaner, more efficient transportation system.
Resiliency to extreme weather and climate change should be a hallmark of our infrastructure spending too. Building with resiliency is a smart way to protect our federal investments, lower the lifecycle costs of each project, and ensure that future generations are set up for success.
We need to start this work now – not at the tortoise pace of government bureaucracy. This begins with improving federal permitting for construction projects. Reforming the National Environmental Policy Act and codifying the “One Federal Decision” policy will consolidate permitting decisions for major infrastructure projects into a single environmental review process that must be completed in two years, overseen by a single federal agency of jurisdiction. Infrastructure projects don’t have to cost a king’s ransom but they need to have shorter timelines and more regulatory certainty to attract appropriate financing and start building for America.
The comprehensive $303.5 billion surface transportation legislation led by Republican Senators Shelly Moore Capito and Kevin Cramer and Democrat Senators Tom Carper and Ben Cardin recently passed out of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. It is a great start to these needed regulatory reforms and demonstrates that when common sense is used, bipartisanship is possible.
Americans know what infrastructure is, and they know energy is central. Infrastructure affects everyone, everyone agrees it needs to be repaired, and everyone should have a stake in its success. President Biden and the Democrats would be making a huge mistake to try and shove yet another expensive, partisan spending package this summer in the name of infrastructure. It’s time for them to reach across the aisle and work seriously on behalf of America.
Heather Reams is Executive Director for Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES), a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization founded in 2013 to engage Republican policymakers and the public about responsible, conservative solutions to address our nation’s energy, economic, and environmental security while increasing America’s competitive edge.