My Turn: Public works – an opportunity for bipartisanship

For the Monitor
Published: 2/14/2021 6:20:04 AM

In President Joe Biden’s inaugural speech, he listed the convergence of five societal-level challenges facing the nation.

He appropriately has focused on the most pressing challenge of containing the spread of the Sars-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. His next initiative could result in advancing the climate change, economic, and justice agendas that are foci of his new administration by strategically crafting a comprehensive public works bill.

Almost 65 years ago President Eisenhower came before a joint session of Congress and proposed the greatest public works effort seen in the history of the United States.

On June 29, 1956, Congress responded by passing the Federal Aid Highway Act that provided the funding to develop the nation’s interstate highway system, today officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Within 20 years, almost 90% of the planned 41,012 miles had been completed.

This vision of the transportation network literally changed the face of the U.S. landscape. Associated with the establishment of the interstates, one saw a land-use pattern that allowed the expansion of the suburbs, with residential development being some distance from citizens’ place of work. It also assured the development of the automobile as the primary mode of transportation into the 21st century.

One year later, the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first space satellite to orbit the globe. Then on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into space, the first human to orbit the globe. Less than a month later, President Kennedy came before a joint session of Congress and put forward a national priority of putting a man on the moon within the decade. Just eight years later, Kennedy’s goal was met when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.

This Apollo success has been followed by equally impressive engineering and applied scientific accomplishments, from the space shuttle program to probes on Mars, the Hubble telescope, and the International Space Station. One could easily argue that the faces of technology and science were changed as the result of the decision to go to the moon.

Lessons of the past

What can we learn from these two initiatives that were put forward and championed by these two leaders? These messages to Congress were presented within the context of the Cold War and were delivered, in part, as actions necessary for national security.

Eisenhower, being the experienced soldier, first with General Pershing in World War I and later as supreme allied commander in Europe during the Second World War, realized that an extensive and maintained road system could enhance national security both for rapid defensive deployment and citizen evacuation in the event of nuclear attack.

Kennedy’s speeches also focused on national security and civil defense initiatives due to the perceived threat of communism and nuclear conflict. It was from such a perspective that the president framed the moon mission as “a great new American enterprise,” thus was born the race for space.

However, both presidents presented their message as an initiative that would enhance the economic health of the nation. Eisenhower reflects the need to prepare for the future, a future with a larger population requiring a growing economy. The interstate system would aid this economic growth by providing jobs and assuring a more efficient flow of goods and services within the country. Kennedy, in a subsequent speech given at Rice University, made it clear that the “growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as school.”

Not only were both presidents responding to perceived threat, but they were considering a potential future, even though the fruits of their decisions would not be realized for years to come. Both had clarity of vision and showed leadership in translating that vision to action.

Our existential threats

Today, many would argue we are also facing very real existential threats to our national security, in the form of changing climate, within the context of an economy dependent on fossil fuels and a system that has historically disadvantaged many in our society. To shift the very systems that have brought us to this convergence of challenges, an effort on the scale of Eisenhower and Kennedy can begin a process to change the landscape of the nation.

During the 1996 presidential race, both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot called for a significant increase in federal spending over what George H.W. Bush had done to invest in what many economists called the foundation of the nation’s economy: transportation and communication infrastructure, as well as addressing waterworks. This was echoed by President Obama, who launched the Build America Investment Initiative that instructed executive branch agencies to take steps to bring private sector capital and investment to bear on improving our nation’s roads, bridges and broadband networks. In some ways this echoed President Bush’s Infrastructure Privatization executive order.

President Biden can go many steps forward by crafting an approach to the aging nation’s infrastructure with a focus on building resilience into new on-the-ground public works projects to withstand the projected disturbances that come from extreme weather events due to a shifting climate.

But this can also concurrently build better transportation infrastructure that takes advantage of renewable energy sources and support private initiatives such as General Motors’ recent announcement to have an all-electric fleet by 2035. Such a step would shift the privatized vehicle fossil-fuel delivery system to a electrified recharging infrastructure across the nation.

This can be complemented by urban multi-modal transportation that provides options for easy and equally accessible alternatives to short intra-city travel distances, with efficiency driven by smart technology. Longer distance inter-city travel has much opportunity for expansion by upgrading rail transportation corridors to support high-speed rail that are already common in many other parts of the world.

These and other public works challenges can take the uncertain climate future into account, while significantly reducing the country’s emissions of greenhouse gases.

A well-crafted public works bill can build bipartisan support. There is no state, nor territory, that is not facing degrading infrastructure.

Former Michigan governor Rick Synder’s administrations summed up the general acknowledgement by other states that 21st-century transportation, water, energy, and communication infrastructure is in very bad shape. This perspective has been supported by Obama’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, who characterized this as a “massive infrastructure deficit” that will cripple the U.S. economy.

A recent report by the Volcker Alliance estimates that deferred maintenance on U.S. infrastructure already exceeds one trillion dollars, or 5% of the U.S gross domestic product, and that ignoring this reality is a national security issue. This was echoed by a report by Strategic Foresight Initiative facilitated by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As many analysts have recently posited, it is time for Biden to go big or go home. An effort on the scale of Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s visions for the future are needed now to address the existential challenges of the 21st century. Create a public works initiative that supports a more sustainable economy, retrains and puts people to work, moves us to a more secure energy future, and improves the health of our natural resources.

This effort must also have as an overarching priority to address the historic inequity of past infrastructure decisions that limited access to the communication, mobility, and healthy air and water experienced by marginalized communities across the nation.

(Michael Simpson is the director of the resource management and administration graduate degree program at Antioch University New England in Keene.)


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