Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Bang, meet buck: The 3 best infrastructure investments to restart our economy

At one time considered the best in the world, America’s infrastructure is now crumbling – and it’s holding back our economic recovery. There’s never been a better time to start rebuilding – and to get the best economic bang for our public bucks, we should begin with our nation’s water, waste management and energy systems.

Certain infrastructure investments are more likely to restart our nation’s economic engine. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. drinking water infrastructure a D minus and our energy infrastructure a D plus. ASCE estimates outdated water systems will cost homes and businesses $206 billion, and jeopardize as many as 700,000 jobs, from 2011 to 2020. Our aging electric power systems emitted almost 2.4 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2010 – more than the combined emissions of 468 million cars.

Meanwhile, construction unemployment is is languishing at 17% while highway repairs are left undone. Lack of funding for those projects alone has cost the U.S. economy hundreds of thousands of jobs. With the national unemployment rate now topping 8%, rebuilding infrastructure presents a policy two-fer: putting people back to work now while laying the foundation (literally) for better long-term economic growth.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP), a non-profit economic research group, recently researched which types of infrastructure investments pay the biggest economic dividends:

First, water infrastructure investments create more jobs overall – and more jobs per dollar – than any other infrastructure project. This is especially true of jobs in those industries hit particularly hard by the recession.

States and localities don’t have to wait for the federal government to act on this one. Philadelphia’s “Green Cities, Clean Waters” stormwater management program is predicted to yield $2 of benefit per $1 dollar invested and create 250 jobs every year. Since the US water system is very decentralized, potential jobs exist everywhere, even in our smallest communities.

Second, smarter investments in waste management could create millions of jobs. Recycling creates ten times as many jobs per ton of waste as landfills, so diverting 75% of waste from landfills and into recycling facilitites could create 2.3 million jobs in 2030 – that’s 1.1 million more jobs than we would create with current recycling trends.

Third, investing in “smart grids” (modern electric infrastructure) reduces energy use and emissions, creates 12.5 jobs for every $1 million in output, and saves customers an average of 10 percent on their energy bills. Austin, Texas is already moving in this direction by equipping homes with “smart” electric meters to allow customers to track energy use and costs. In Seattle, the Building Energy Benchmarking and Reporting Ordinance aims for a 20% decrease in energy consumption in all existing buildings by 2020, compared to their 2005 levels. Retrofitting of existing buildings will create an estimated 150 new jobs.

The last piece to the puzzle is a locally run state infrastructure bank (SIB) designed to help communities achieve these and other goals. Several states – Kansas, Ohio, Georgia, Florida and Virginia – have established SIBs using only state funds. This also allows them to do projects “off the highway,” including helping local governments pay for 100-percent local projects. Washington legislators considered a similar idea this year: the Washington Investment Trust.

An aging infrastructure and high unemployment is a two-part problem – but one solution can help both. Putting people back to work repairing and updating our nation’s infrastructure will boost the economy and jumpstart the “virtuous cycle” of economic growth. If the federal government won’t take the initiative, local governments in Washington can proactively make smart investments that will improve our communities and put people back to work.

~by Pete Stewart, EOI Intern

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