Want to Spend Federal Infrastructure Billions Right? Un-Build Back Better.

I have a new post up at my Sustain What newsletter/blog warning what to watch for and work for after the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill moves past President Biden’s desk. Here’s the lede:

The passage of the $1.2 trillion “Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal” in a House vote late Friday night, with the support of 13 Republicans, was an extraordinary achievement aimed at firming up the decaying physical foundations of our economy and communities.

The focus in Washington is now on the end game for the even-bigger Build Back Better Act aimed at restoring frayed social systems, spreading low-carbon energy systems and so much more.

But the focus of every community in America should now also be on figuring out how to spend this historic burst of infrastructure funding, much of which will go to state and local governments, in ways that don’t build new risk or miss pockets of deep vulnerability. I’ll focus here on surface transportation and flooding.

The bill language calls for the development of “strategies to reduce the climate change impacts of the surface transportation system and a vulnerability assessment to identify opportunities to enhance the resilience of the surface transportation system and ensure the efficient use of federal resources.”

Here’s hoping this two-pronged requirement is actualized even under intense pressure for shovel-ready, job-generating projects.

Somehow, at all levels, we have to figure out how to do shovel-ready work but also make it climate-ready — meaning future resistant if not future-proofed.

The pressure is already on, signaled by celebratory news releases from business groups pressing for quick signing by President Joe Biden. These include the National Asphalt Pavement Association and Portland Cement Association. The biggest component of the deal is $110 billion in new funding over five years for state and local road projects — bringing the total federal spend in that span to $360 billion. That’s billion with a B.

That is great for the economy, and for existing roadways, many of which are in deep disrepair. (The banner at the top is long-overdue road work outside my window today here in the Hudson River valley.)

But the deal — deemed “the largest investment in the resilience of physical and natural systems in American history” by the White House — has to work for the long haul, as well.

It’s vital to prioritize projects built to withstand what’s coming as global warming proceeds (recalling that even aggressive and global cuts in greenhouse gas emissions won’t tame weather extremes for decades.)

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Read the rest for some examples of how to build back spongier.

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