I would also like to see more money for research, because we need to find out more about what we can actually do to solve these problems. But we’ll see how much is in the next bill.
There’s a focus on electrification and the grid, which is sort of a big catch-all for getting power around to the right place. If there is to be a transition away from fossil fuel power, one of the critical pieces is connecting renewable power from where it can be produced to where it’s needed.
This is about grid transportation and reliability, and modernisation. And that’s a project that the government has to have a big role in because, particularly in the US, the grid is part private, part public. It’s been built over decades. That’s a big challenge and there’s a lot of money earmarked for it – so that’s a good first step.
Does any tension exist between an infrastructure commitment on this scale and realizing it in a way that’s mindful of the planet?
I don’t think that there’s going to be a practical tension because the roads-and-bridges piece is fixing what we’ve got, mostly. It’s not mostly about building new stuff.
But there is a tension in the sense that we need to encourage mass transit and discourage individual automobiles. Electrification of cars is great. And I’m all in favour of repairing crumbling bridges and fixing potholes. Potholes are dangerous and they make driving less efficient, which consumes more gas.
But, big picture? We need to get people out of cars and onto mass transit. And I know this is a controversial concept. But, generally speaking, we need to get people comfortable with living in greater concentration. Of course, people will still need to live in rural areas too. But urban lifestyles are more efficient in terms of carbon footprint.
Many of the infrastructure projects from the post war-era facilitated a very inefficient use of resources. I’m not suggesting we force people into cities, it’s happening naturally – urbanisation is a global trend. And COVID notwithstanding, we need to make that easier.
That – setting aside specific climate dollars – is where the money needs to be spent.
What are the bill’s big commitments likely to mean for people and their communities?
Well as excited as I am that this finally seems to be happening, I’m going to be a bit cynical about the pace of impact. And no one should be disappointed to hear this because it’s just the reality – infrastructure is slow. None of this is going to happen overnight.
The first places that will get the money are likely to be projects that are already in the pipeline. So there will be some pick-up in jobs. But, COVID-19 aside, the construction industry was not underutilised in the US. And modern infrastructure projects require high-skilled work, so we’re going to have to start training people to create the workforce.
The most critical thing is to choose carefully what to build, because once you build it, you’re stuck with it. We’re well aware of that in New York, where there are many projects built by the famous builder Robert Moses. Some of them are great – but some of them destroyed neighbourhoods.
So what needs to happen next?
The trillion dollars in the US infrastructure bill is actually only about $500 billion of new spending – some of those things were already in past budgets. So ultimately the most important thing is what’s in the budget reconciliation.
We need to look at the big transformation trends, which are resiliency and reduction in terms of the climate. Let’s get to the real game of providing the beginning of an investment for a transformative relationship with how we use our infrastructure in America.
But I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to manage expectations and be patient. Things will not transform right away. Infrastructure is slow, and it should be because considered decisions need to be made. That’s not exciting or sexy – but it’s really important.