Today in Washington, D.C., at the first meeting of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Chairman Peter DeFazio’s (D-OR) phone alarm went off. Rep. DeFazio offhandedly joked that it was “the alarm sounding on America’s infrastructure.”
It could also be considered the starting bell in the rush to design, fund, and implement a national infrastructure overhaul.
As the hearing—entitled “The Cost of Doing Nothing: Why Investing in Our Nation’s Infrastructure Cannot Wait”—kicked off, buzz built about a newly released draft of the Green New Deal, a highly-anticipated joint resolution by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that will be officially introduced to Congress on Thursday afternoon.
These two events—a debate on repairing our roads, trains, tunnels, and infrastructure; and a bold plan to combat climate change—couldn’t be more intertwined. They showcase the momentum behind a significant infrastructure investment and efforts to recognize the seriousness of climate change. Former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood bluntly said our country is a “big, giant pothole.”
Both calls to action have striking overlaps. According to Vox’s David Roberts, the Green New Deal draft contains calls for substantial investment and job creation. During the House infrastructure meeting, DeFazio said that “every subcommittee will have a hearing looking at climate change and resiliency and make sure their mode of transit is less gas-dependent.” Many leaders involved in both of these issues see a significant investment in high-tech, sustainable, 21st-century green infrastructure as a solution to many key challenges facing the country.
These concurrent pushes, and the coalitions assembled behind them, stand in bold relief to President Donald Trump’s repeated—and failed—calls for a bipartisan deal on infrastructure. “It’s infrastructure week” has become a punchline in Washington. But today’s events signify many members of the new Congress have an appetite for passing a big, bold plan.
Turning broken infrastructure into a new opportunity
The country’s infrastructure woes are well-documented. Rep. DeFazio re-iterated the various ways that our roads, bridges, ports, rails, and trails are falling behind and falling apart: There’s a projected $2 trillion investment gap in infrastructure spending over the next decade; American families lose $3,400 a year dealing with broken or inadequate roads and transit systems; and the country as a whole burns through $3 billion of fuel idling in congestion. The system is “congested, inadequate, and stupid.” Pointing to a Cornell University study that showed every $1 in deferred maintenance on roads and bridges costs an additional $4 to $5 in future repair needs, he said the time to act is now.
During the committee hearing, multiple representatives and speakers noted the vast number of transit referendums and funding bills passed at the state and local level, suggesting a hunger for more investment, and a need for the federal government to get more involved. California’s strong rejection of a referendum to repeal a state gas tax highlighted, for many, a big shortfall: the federal government’s repeated failure to raise the gas tax to fund the Highway Trust Fund, the main source of support for roads and highways.
LaHood implored to committee to recognize that the federal government can’t push off its duty to create a modern, resilient transportation system on a state-by-state basis, arguing “we have to be there with them and coordinate and invest.”
Seizing the opportunity to transform this crumbling infrastructure into a modern system that supercharges the economy can mean so much more than a faster commute. Green New Deal advocates see this huge shift as a chance to attack so many more pressing issues. New, green infrastructure can provide jobs, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and usher in new renewable energy, as well as a new green-energy industry.
If done right, the draft Green New Deal resolution argues, the plan can simultaneously fight “a climate crisis and an economic crisis of wage stagnation and growing inequality,” according to Vox’s Roberts.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who spoke at the House committee today, said that local leaders are behind the effort. The U.S. Conference of Mayors plans to submit a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, but needs federal support and buy-in to realize it’s full potential.
“It’s time to pass an infrastructure package,” he said. “This Congress has a chance to make history. In 2016, we were promised hundreds of billions of infrastructure investment from the two candidates. We’re still waiting.”
Surge in support for new investment
Any new infrastructure plan needs to pass a Republican-controlled Senate and gain Trump’s signature, dampening enthusiasm for a sweeping and expensive mass mobilization on the scale proposed by Ocasio-Cortez and her allies.
At the same time, there is significant support that has materialized in mere months.
According to a statement by the Sunrise Movement, a grassroots political group pushing for action on climate change, the Green New Deal has nearly 70 cosponsors in Congress, and nearly every major Democratic presidential contender backs the idea. Next month, the group will launch The Road to a Green New Deal Tour, a 15-city national tour promoting the plan. The concept has quickly gone from a unspecified idea to a central tenant of progressive politics and a headline issue in 2019.
“In 2018, young people put the Green New Deal on the national agenda,” said Varshini Prakash, founder and executive director of Sunrise Movement. “The historic support for this resolution, especially among 2020 contenders, shows how far the movement has shifted the political conversation. The Green New Deal is now a litmus test for progressive leadership in 2019.”
At the same time, years of delay have led to impatience over the lack of any infrastructure investment. Representative Sam Graves (R-MO) said that the government has “kicked the can down the road so much we’ve almost kicked it off the map.”
There are large constituencies for bold action to fix infrastructure and invest in a greener future. The overlap between these groups may be just what’s needed to compel Congress to act.