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Does America believe in public infrastructure anymore? – The Guardian

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Does America believe in public infrastructure anymore?

America’s 21st-century infrastructure must lay the foundation of a more just, equitable, and inclusive society. Trump’s plan will not accomplish that

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‘History teaches us that allowing wealth to determine public investment decisions only calcifies societal inequities.’
Photograph: Carlos Osorio/AP

This week, President Trump released his much-anticipated plan to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure. From providing too little government funding, to resting on unrealistic expectations for private investment, to threatening key environmental protections, the plan is rife with problems. And yet most troubling is the Trump administration’s total disregard for public goods, public voice, and the public interest.

Instead of prioritizing our most pressing needs, Trump wants to let wealth dictate who will benefit from infrastructure improvements. According to the rules laid out in his plan, proposed projects will be judged overwhelmingly by the amount of outside funding they can attract.

The amount of non-federal funding supplied for a given project will count for 70% of its score, while “evidence supporting how the project will spur economic and social returns on investment” will be weighted at just 5%. In other words, projects will live or die based on the resources they can attract, rather than the number of people they would serve or how urgently they are needed.

This system not only incentivizes projects that profit at the public’s expense, such as toll roads, but also increases the likelihood that federal dollars will flow to wealthy jurisdictions that need them the least. When priorities are determined by wealth and profitability, the disadvantaged are left behind. Under Trump’s plan, communities that most need critical infrastructure investments – low-income communities, often communities of color – will be left out.

Equitable infrastructure investment is the backbone of an inclusive economy and society – something past presidential administrations have recognized and acted upon. Franklin Roosevelt brought farmers out of the dark with rural electrification and Eisenhower extended economic opportunity from coast to coast with the interstate highway system. These investments were costly and far-reaching, but they helped usher in an era of unprecedented growth and prosperity for our country.

A 21st-century infrastructure investment should embody the spirit of these historical investments, but go even further to incorporate the communities of color that were neglected – or in many cases deliberately harmed – by past initiatives. In short, America needs infrastructure investments not just to remain economically competitive, but to correct for historical exclusions from essential services.

Communities of color are more likely to lack internet access, to be underserved by public transportation, and to suffer from long commutes. Trump’s infrastructure plan will likely entrench these infrastructure inequities. Examples like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where emergency managers put cost savings over public health outcomes, highlight the importance of investing with an eye towards social justice.

Ignoring social equity concerns in infrastructure policy feeds destructive cycles, which require proactive measures to correct. In a recent Roosevelt Institute report, we trace the lineage of New Deal redlining policies, which created racially segregated low-income neighborhoods, to today’s racialized “digital divide”, which relegates communities of color to second-class Internet access. Private, profit-seeking actors exacerbate such disparities by focusing their investments on more profitable upper-income areas.

History teaches us that allowing wealth to determine public investment decisions only calcifies societal inequities – yet this is precisely the road map laid out in the White House plan. After decades of neglect, and with economic opportunity disappearing, a renewed inclusive vision for our country’s infrastructure is more important than ever before. But such a collective vision is nowhere be found in Trump’s infrastructure agenda.

What we need is a return to a collective spirit and a collective vision for public investment, one that puts the American people first and takes into account historical neglect and intentional harm of vulnerable communities. The Roosevelt Institute has argued that we must build the infrastructure that reflects the society we wish to create. America’s 21st-century infrastructure must lay the foundation of a more just, equitable, and inclusive – something that Trump’s plan will not accomplish.

  • Rakeen Mabud is the program director of the 21st Century Economy & Economic Inclusion Programs at the Roosevelt Institute. Eric Harris Bernstein is a program manager at the Roosevelt Institute, working on antitrust policy and market power.

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