Thomas J. Madison Jr. is an infrastructure consultant and former federal highway administrator. He wrote this column for InsideSources.com.
Infrastructure is the next marquis item on President Joe Biden’s to-do list, and the scope of his investment plan, like his actions on COVID relief, “is big and it’s bold.”
Considering the state of our nation’s backbone, boldness is in order. While the punch list for upgrading our failing infrastructure is long, reforming antiquated permitting protocols and reshoring the essential supply chains that once underpinned the country’s industrial base must play prominently in Biden’s plan.
Although the condition of American infrastructure tends to be measured by the size of its potholes, decades of neglect have cut much deeper than a bumpy ride. The industries that helped build our infrastructure have been constrained over time, and we need them back.
For example, mining the metals and materials essential to building and maintaining our civil infrastructure was once an indispensable feature of the U.S. industrial sector. Today, however, we depend heavily on imports of these materials, with China dominating the marketplace. “Building Back Better” is a suitable refrain for Biden’s infrastructure and economic agenda, so long as the raw materials necessary to meet his ambitious goals are sourced in America, and create jobs in Birmingham and Boise instead of Beijing.
The scale of the work required to build back better is tremendous. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently graded America’s roads, bridges, dams, electric grid, water systems, and other critical infrastructure a C-minus. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 assessment of the same assets was a D-plus. See how far we’ve come? Me either.
Tackling this grand challenge is necessary, and offers the potential to propel us toward a bold new era for the American economy; one that creates jobs, harnesses industrial might, and builds big things again. Success will require a multi-pronged approach, including coordinated public and private investment and sweeping policy and regulatory reforms.
Permitting new American infrastructure has become a slow, painful process, and its cost and complexity increase with each new effort. Building in a concerted, intelligent manner requires a streamlined, accelerated environmental permitting process. Introducing smart reforms and reasonable timeframes for permit reviews will expedite project delivery while protecting our environment. This isn’t a new concept, just one that’s been maligned, blocked, or altogether ignored for decades.
Highway and rail projects, electric transmission lines, and new mineral and metal mines are hamstrung by unrelenting, unnecessary permitting delays. Shamefully, American highway projects take an average of seven years to permit under the existing regulatory framework.
Even worse, approving a new hardrock mine to provide the copper, nickel, zinc, and iron necessary to build bridges and fiber-optic cables takes 10 years or longer. At a moment that requires agility and forward motion, we remain stuck waist-deep in regulatory mud.
Modernizing American infrastructure requires entrenched bureaucracies to stand beside the engineers and builders ready to break ground, instead of actively working against them. Our antiquated permitting process hinders private investment, stifles productivity, and alienates the very industries anxious to meet the scale of a bold presidential challenge.
Consider one aspect of this effort: securing the materials necessary to rebuild our infrastructure and create the green energy future we desire and deserve. The U.S. highway system contains 6 billion tons of steel and 4 million miles of roadway. The entire system won’t be rebuilt, but thousands of miles will be, including bridges, culverts, tunnels, dams, railways, and transit systems. New energy infrastructure will require massive investments in transmission lines, wind turbines, solar arrays, and electric vehicles to support an emerging low-carbon economy.
Unlocking the mineral reserves to support these projects will require massive private investment from the mining industry; investment that can be increased and expedited by improving the mine permitting process and reducing barriers to domestic production.
Rebuilding America’s infrastructure must include a modernized industrial base that offers good-paying jobs to energize our economy for decades to come. This is no time to shy away from big things. At a moment when we’ve been bloodied by politics, ravaged by disease, and stymied by inaction, it’s time to make smart investments in our future and reinvigorate the bones and sinew of our economy. Help has finally arrived, and as Biden likes to say “Come on man … this is America!