Decades of disinvestment have left this country’s infrastructure system in disrepair, with the White House noting in its infrastructure announcement that the US ranks 13th among global economies for infrastructure quality despite being the wealthiest nation in the world. Even by our own engineering standards, our infrastructure has barely improved its grade from D+ to a C- in the past four years, primarily thanks to state and local efforts. Much needs to be done to build out our transportation and energy networks.
But these scores underestimate other critical gaps in our nation’s built environment. Embedded in President Biden’s proposal for investing in the nation’s deteriorating public works are supports for housing, water supplies and waste streams, and climate defenses. These sectors are infrastructure by virtually all definitions (PDF), and they are in sore need of retrofit, replacement, and new construction. They provide the critical connection to the nation’s energy and transportation networks, and they are the parts of that system closest to American households—literally, in their homes and the water they drink.
Investments in the entire system are needed, and Biden’s plan is sound, despite debates about its cost. Yet, given the extent of deterioration across the built environment, the question should be: Does the proposal go far enough to meet the need?
The proposal provides funding for key nontransportation infrastructure sectors
The $2 trillion–dollar plan largely focuses on investments in transportation, but a few of the plan’s nontransportation investments, including outlays for water, climate adaptation, and housing, are especially worth putting into context.
The plan’s water infrastructure provisions are the most aggressive, with $111 billion proposed to replace 100 percent of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines, including those that continue to plague old water systems and result in health emergencies, like in Flint, Michigan. This overhaul would benefit more than six million households exposed to lead poisoning.
This bill matches that urgent need and the long-term maintenance required for all water supplies. It includes $45 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund through the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, $10 billion to remediate toxins for rural small water systems and wells, and $56 billion to incentivize jurisdictions to share the costs and extend the federal dollar.
With the funding in the infrastructure plan and the direct aid to low-income households for water bills through the American Rescue Plan Act’s Low-Income Household Drinking Water and Wastewater Emergency Assistance Program (a first-of-its-kind water bill assistance program), we could all have safe, affordable water access.
The plan proposes $50 billion to improve infrastructure resilience, including prioritizing safeguards for the most vulnerable communities, who suffer when infrastructure fails them. Federal funding plays an essential role in these scenarios, and the plan proposes working through existing emergency management programs, like the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program and the Community Development Block Grant Program, which past Urban Institute research has shown to be a critical resource for communities.
But given the costs for adapting single metropolitan areas like Miami and Boston—about $5 billion and $2.4 billion, respectively—the plan only begins to fill priority needs. And previous infrastructure plans have prioritized low-cost improvements rather than innovative, community-driven, long-term approaches.
The plan also proposes $213 billion to produce, preserve, and retrofit homes, with a range of other grant programs and competitive incentives to spur new housing developments; $20 billion to support the proposed Neighborhood Homes Investment Act’s tax credits; and grant programs to reward inclusionary zoning and other housing stimulants. But with the persistence of overburdened households paying a large portion of their income in mortgage or rent and the continually growing deficit of market-rate housing, with four million to almost seven million homes needed nationwide, the proposal chips away at our current housing crisis.
The plan’s outlays for improving households’ energy burdens are also conservative compared with the need. Fortunately, they focus on improving homes for the long term. The proposal would expand the US Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program and establish a $27 billion Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator to see private investment in energy improvements across all sectors. Although the funds are a step in the right direction, they are well under the sum needed to retrofit the homes of the nearly 35 million households currently eligible for utility assistance, as well as the millions more who haven’t been able to afford their utility bills during the pandemic.
Like water and climate adaptation, the housing resources proposed in the Biden plan will boost the design and construction industries, increase overall employment, and benefit the economy, but its investments are tempered in regard to longer-term goals. A more comprehensive housing infrastructure plan would both increase overall funding and incentivize jurisdictions to construct and rehab more and higher-quality homes by withholding federal funds from the recalcitrant communities that do not reform their exclusionary laws and increase local housing inventories.
Sticking to principles, albeit modestly
Ultimately, the proposal works toward aiding the nation’s economic recovery from the pandemic, boosting our sorely neglected and deteriorating infrastructure, and doing so equitably by ensuring the health, financial well-being, and safety of all Americans while prioritizing neglected communities.
But the proposal may not go far enough toward ensuring the long-term health of the entire national infrastructure, down to each home’s bricks and mortar. Our nation’s economy is built on this entire system being structurally sound, efficient in performance, and equitable in delivery and construction.
Infrastructure is the physical support for the public commons. If we all contribute fairly, we should all benefit equitably. Even though our infrastructure needs are wider and deeper, this proposal is a decent down payment on our common home.
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