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Why rebuilding our infrastructure goes beyond roads and bridges

By tackling climate change now, we can keep our costs low in the future

As we begin the difficult work of rebuilding for a post-pandemic future, we must be laser-focused on building a sustainable, resilient and just society that works for everyone, Quigley writes.
As we begin the difficult work of rebuilding for a post-pandemic future, we must be laser-focused on building a sustainable, resilient and just society that works for everyone, Quigley writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In recent weeks, Republicans have criticized President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan by claiming that its focus is not on traditional infrastructure.

That’s true. And that’s exactly the point.

We have to build forward, not backward. That means improving our roads and bridges but also going far beyond those priorities. We live in a new world where infrastructure is the internet we surf, the electric grid that powers our homes, the pipes that deliver our water and so much more.

As we begin the difficult work of rebuilding for a post-pandemic future, we must be laser-focused on building a sustainable, resilient and just society that works for everyone, no matter where they live, how they live or how much money they make. What we do now will determine what kind of country we are and what kind of future we want.

After a natural disaster strikes, infrastructure is rebuilt according to strict resilience criteria put in place to withstand the impact of a future natural disaster. We must take the same approach to rebuilding from the pandemic and use this opportunity to address some of the major issues that have plagued our built environment for a lot longer than the past year.

The single most important first step we can take is to build in a way that confronts the challenges of climate change head-on. New infrastructure should always prioritize good environmental policy, but it also means building smart and emphasizing things that offer economic benefits both now and in a low-carbon future. They include functional and reliable locks and dams on our waterways; permeable pavement and other green infrastructure to minimize flood damage; electric vehicle charging infrastructure; and an efficient freight rail system. Moreover, distributed power generation and other electric grid improvements are a prerequisite for powering our economy, safeguarding our way of life and meeting our climate goals — an issue I’ve been working on diligently in Congress.

While tackling climate change is no inexpensive feat, and I know the price tag can sometimes seem daunting, by ensuring our infrastructure meets these requirements now, we can keep our costs low in the future.

Investing in good, reliable, and environmentally sustainable infrastructure is simply an investment — it pays a return. And I’m concerned it’s an investment that other countries, such as many in the European Union, India and China, have been prioritizing over the past few decades at many times the rate the U.S. has. Our economic competitiveness depends on a reliable infrastructure.

We recently saw the catastrophic results of failing to make our infrastructure responsive to climate change. In February, the Texas electric grid collapsed under the weight of an unprecedented weather event, just another piece of evidence of the effects of climate change.

It should be a warning that we must invest in not only preparing the grid for these unusual weather systems, but also in clean energy, which fared better in that crisis than other sources of power. Our economy depends on us being prepared for weather events. It is quite literally a matter of life and death for millions of Americans.

Investing in the infrastructure of our individual communities is critical also to our overall safety as a nation. Strengthening the power grid in one state saves lives in that state, but it also has a ripple effect across the country. The same is true with our water infrastructure — which has already been virtually attacked this year — our health care system and the vital supply chains we rely on.

To that end, we must fortify our natural safeguards in the interest of our national security. If we are concerned about the threat of foreign or domestic attacks, our infrastructure is just one way to keep our country safe. This means investing in programs that direct funds to where they are most needed: our nation’s highest-threat metropolitan areas, state capital cities and government buildings. Cities face ever-changing threat environments, and it is crucial that we provide them with the funding they need to invest in resources to shore up our infrastructure to keep Americans safe, such as much-needed security measures like cameras, physical barriers and controlled entry systems.

We are a more divided nation than we have been in generations, but rolling up our collective sleeves and digging in to make our country work better for everyone can help bring us back together. Repairing our nation’s infrastructure is not something we can accomplish overnight, and neither is bridging our differences. But just as our roads and bridges bring us together and connect us across distances, I believe that the shared goal of pursuing transformative reinvestment in our infrastructure can help us overcome our political divides.

Rep. Mike Quigley is a Democrat representing Illinois’ 5th District. He serves on the House Appropriations, Oversight and Reform, and Intelligence committees.

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