By Tom Madison
April 10, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
A massive infrastructure investment component is very likely to be included in the next round of federal stimulus legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Donald Trump have finally found a place for compromise in the shadow of our national crisis, and making intelligent investments in America’s infrastructure is long overdue.
Dedicating the resources to substantially and effectively rebuild the nation’s infrastructure can’t happen soon enough, but maximizing the positive impact on our economy will require more than a big blank check. Meaningful policy improvements must accompany a cash bailout and include regulatory reforms that streamline project permitting and fortify the nation’s materials supply chains.
There is simply no debate about the abysmal condition of our country’s infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers grades America’s roads, bridges, dams, electric grid, water systems and other vital assets with a shameful D+, sadly confirming what even casual observers already know.
Acting fast to infuse up to $2 trillion in infrastructure spending will bolster our economy, address a dire national need and provide real long-term employment opportunities for industries, companies and people that are hurting today.
Should an infrastructure package materialize, it must include regulatory reforms to help deliver projects quickly. Real reforms crafted by smart, bipartisan groups and individuals are already on the shelf, right next to projects that desperately await delivery. If these reforms aren’t dusted off and deployed now, any grand infrastructure investment is bound to fall short.
Yes, a prolonged lack of dedicated funding has played a major role in driving our infrastructure into disrepair, but in some ways, duplicative regulatory impediments have been even more insidious, diluting what little funds are available. The National Environmental Policy Act has long been an albatross around the neck of infrastructure projects; substantially reforming it must be included in an infrastructure stimulus package.
Permitting delays caused by NEPA have touched every element of America’s critical infrastructure. Highway, bridge and rail projects, green power transmission lines and even new mineral and metal mines that support infrastructure projects all continue to fall victim to redundant permitting costs and delays.
New highway projects take an average of seven years to permit under the current regulatory approach. Approving new hardrock mines that provide essential materials for civil infrastructure, renewable energy and new-tech projects can take seven to 10 years or longer. Such unnecessary delays must be addressed.
To accelerate the modernization of America’s infrastructure, the very backbone of the national economy we seek to bolster, we must require slow-moving government bureaucracies to keep pace with the fast-moving designers, engineers and builders who will deliver these projects. New levels of coordination and efficiency between the public and private sectors are essential to address our infrastructure needs.
Regulatory reforms must be accompanied by a significant reshoring of U.S. material supply chains that provide the building blocks for our infrastructure assets. Just as an infrastructure stimulus will be a reaction, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic, we must apply pandemic lessons to rebuilding our infrastructure.
In recent weeks, we witnessed preventable tragedies because of our reliance on China and other offshore sources for urgently needed ventilators, masks and gloves. By the time domestic manufacturing ramped up to meet production needs, it was already too late for many.
Despite America’s vast supply of domestic mineral reserves, our reliance on imports of raw materials has nearly doubled in the past 20 years. Today, we are 50-plus percent reliant on other countries for nearly 50 vital minerals and metals, and 100 percent import-dependent for 18 of those.
A $2 trillion infrastructure package that relies heavily on foreign supply chains would be a stimulus for Chinese industry, tightening China’s control on global mineral markets and further threatening a U.S. industrial base we should be expanding.
Making U.S. infrastructure investments on a grand scale is imperative, exciting and long overdue. This moment of crisis and reflection offers a compelling opportunity to move the process forward in a deliberate, coordinated fashion while making intelligent regulatory reforms that bolster our uniquely American industries.
Tom Madison is an infrastructure consultant and former U.S. Federal Highway Administrator.
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