The debate over the US Highway Spending Bill is over as President Obama signed the legislation late November. The bill funds basic highway infrastructure spending for the next 5 years, allowing the Highway Trust Fund to avoid total bankruptcy. However asThe Verge noted, the new legislation is very basic and well, stuck in the past.
Bernie Sanders has a very ambitious 1 trillion dollar plan to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure system and put 13 million people back to work in the process. The plan is called the Rebuild America Act and goes into which sectors of America’s infrastructure would see a dramatic increase in investment:
● A $125 billion National Infrastructure Bank to leverage private capital to finance new projects.
● $75 billion to upgrade our passenger and freight rail lines.
● $12.5 billion to improve airports across the country.
● $17.5 billion to upgrade air traffic control systems.
● $15 billion to improve inland waterways, coastal harbors, and shipping channels.
● $12 billion each year on high-hazard dams that provide flood control, drinking water, irrigation, hydropower, and recreation across the country; and the flood levees.
● $6 billion a year so states can improve drinking water systems.
● $6 billion a year to improve the wastewater plants and stormwater infrastructure.
● $10 billion a year for power transmission and distribution modernization projects.
● $5 billion a year to expand high-speed broadband networks in underserved and unserved areas, and to boost speeds and capacity all across the country.
The Rebuild America Act is very comprehensive, but even this plan won’t cover all the systemic problems centered around America’s aging infrastructure and energy network. There is a multitude of innovations and technology that could push the US beyond having a decent or adequate infrastructure and instead having a revolutionary one. The federal government should lead by investing in these innovations to help scale them up to a level to create real rapid change. In order to do this, I propose a new piece of legislation: the Technology Infrastructure & Energy Revolution Act (TIER Act). This TIER Act would invest in, then implement successful technology to help lower costs to consumers and taxpayers while creating an efficient, up to date, and revolutionary infrastructure network.
“Innovation has in recent years become synonymous in popular perception with companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung, which develop brilliant consumer products including computers and mobile phones. But the reality is that some of the most impressive innovations are being led by governments as they focus on major challenges such as infrastructure development, providing better public services and growing their economies in a more environmentally friendly way.”
Studies and national infrastructure surveys have revealed the major problems with our national infrastructure/energy system right now and over the years. According to the American Society for Civil Engineers’ (A.S.C.E.) last national report card (shown above), in 2013 the US got a D+. The A.S.C.E. said we need over $3.6 trillion in the next five years to get the US in an adequate state. Even Bernie’s trillion dollar plan could use some beefing up in order to really tackle all of these problems.
Let’s start with how the TIER Act would deal with the dilapidated state of the US highway, interstate, and road system. The current US interstate highway system alone is nearly 50,000 miles long and was designed and constructed by the Eisenhower Administration beginning in 1956. Now, the highway system is large but underfunded and in need of a long overdue overhaul. Both the Highway Spending Bill and Bernie’s Rebuild America Act intend to do so by investing money in repairing and maintaining the current network of roadways. This proposal is fine, but unambitious. The TIER act would call for more revolutionary investments to overhaul the roadway system in America completely.
Right now, a start-up tech company is attempting to revolutionize both the US energy and road system at the same time, and with government investment, America could lead the world in a big way in infrastructure innovation. The company’s name is Solar Roadways and their big idea is to replace all of the paved highways and roads in America with roads constructed with specially-designed solar panel tiles.
These hexagonal panel tiles would replace the asphalt on the surface, and underneath would be the underground wiring and connections to a larger electrical grid. These panels would create enough power to meet America’s energy need many times over.
“In theory, the idea could work: replace all the nation’s asphalt with solar panels, and we’d generate more than three times the electricity the US uses. Solar Roadways’ design would also filter stormwater, replace above-ground power cables, prevent icy roads by melting snow, and light up to warn drivers if a moose wanders onto the road.”
The company makes the point that solar adoption on homeowners’ roofs is still painfully slow. so embedding it within infrastructure on a large scale could get faster results in switching to renewable energy. This kind of national plan also has the benefit of eliminating the conventional concept of the electric bill, as electricity would essentially be free, on the production side at least.
At the moment, Solar Roadways is hoping that corporate investment could get them off the ground at scale. If McDonald’s or a sports league committed to paving their parking lots with solar tiles, it could help Solar Roadways get off the ground and scale up. I believe, however, that this is the perfect opportunity for a competent government investment plan to step in and try something risky, but revolutionary. Therefore, the TIER Act will appropriate the funds to pave the parking lots of every federal facility in the country and begin planning for the even more ambitious goal of paving America’s highways with solar tiles.
The US Highway transportation has been neglected for decades and has failed to maintain itself due to its size and a lack of political leadership. Next there is a realm of transportation that has been neglected even further in a different kind of way. That system is the national railways.
The national railways were neglected as the highway system was being built in the 50′s as more people and cargo were moving on the roads. The freight railway was able to keep itself aloft, with investments in maintaining its vast railway network, but passenger rail essentially collapsed. The federal government decided to take over the remnants of the passenger rail network and founded Amtrak which is currently the closest thing America has to a major national passenger rail system. Amtrak uses freight rail lines to connect cities on the slow moving conventional rail. The freight system itself has done much better to an extent, and even makes decent profits, but both passenger and freight are working in a mid 20th-century system at best. The rail system in its current state is from centuries past and the government has shown that it lacks the political will and leadership to make a serious investment.
The United States invested in its highway and roadway transportation system after the Second World War, while postwar Europe and Asia focused more on public transit and rebuilding a modern rail network. Now that the highway network needs a major overhaul, it gives the government the opportunity to add more funds to reinvigorate the rail system and help alleviate traffic pressure on the repaired roads and bridges. America could move away from the current state, with the road system being the sole primary method of moving people and cargo across the country, by reinvesting in a 21st-century rail system. The freight system would only need a moderate modernization investment as private rail companies have kept the system working and up to date. The real investment from the TIER Act would be building a completely new high-speed passenger rail system, completely independent of congested freight rail lines where speed for trains is heavily restrained.
“The Northeast Corridor (Boston-New York-Washington) comes in at the top of just about every list of potential candidates for high-speed rail, with the distances involved being considered within the “Goldilocks” zone for fast trains. “
In 2000 Amtrak unveiled it’s first serious attempt at high-speed rail with the Acela Express line (shown above). The Acela line is along the high-traffic and popular “Northeast Corridor”, between Boston in New England and Washington DC in the Mid-Atlantic. In certain spots on the line, the Acela can reach up to 150mph, and has been a success in terms of traffic and cutting travel times somewhat, but the project is still severely limited by the dilapidated infrastructure Amtrak is forced to work with. Along much of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has to share rail lines with local commuter trains and freight rail, meaning the tracks are too crowded to reach high speeds. On top of that, much of the Northeast Corridor Rail lines were laid in the pre-high speed rail era and are simply inadequate for Acela to maintain high speeds for long periods safely.
To alleviate this problem, the TIER Act will provide the funds to invest the billions needed to build a high-speed passenger rail line exclusively for our next-gen high-speed rail service along the Northeast Corridor. This itself will be the springboard for a larger high-speed rail system crossing the entire eastern seaboard and eventually other parts of the country. Already California has a high-speed rail system in the works for the corridor of cities along its coast.
Now we move to a segment of the infrastructure that may not be seen as traditional infrastructure to many, but whose problems are all too familiar to almost anyone reading this post right now: the internet and America’s system of ISP’s. The United States seems to have entered the final stages in the fight over Net Neutrality, a fight to prevent the ISP Corporate “gatekeepers” like Comcast and Verizon from creating separate tiered lanes of the internet.
(workers laying down fiber optic cables)
For Millennials and all Americans invested in our digital internet world, it’s not exactly a big secret that America’s broadband and cellular internet networks are a joke. Households across America experience piss-poor connections that frustrate users, suffocate internet use growth, and stifle potential innovations. As The Huffington Post noted, the United States is ranked 19th in the world for wired broadband speeds and 55th in wireless speeds. Americans, particularly in rural areas that have very little prospects at acquiring a decent connection have come to rely on the somewhat better cellular networks for the majority of their internet consumption. Wired broadband has plateaued and even dropped in the United States as, despite promises from the telecom giants, internet service is still garbage.
“America was supposed to have a fabulous fiber optic future. Sure, there are some places in America where you can get gigabit speeds (1000 Mbps) over fiber. But as this collection of research indicates, on average, America’s broadband is still a digital dirt road. By the end of 2014, America paid about $400 billion and counting to their local incumbent telecommunications utilities, now known as AT&T, Verizon, and Centurylink to replace the aging copper wires with fiber optics.”
The very public fight over net neutrality over the past two years has brought the systematic problems underlying our pathetic broadband network into full view. The reason these two internet struggles are related is that, unlike the other aspects of our infrastructure discussed earlier, the wired internet network is not bad because of a lack of maintenance or a shift of priorities, but instead because of reckless corporate greed and a lack of government regulations to inhibit that reckless greed.
In many areas of the country, the current infrastructure network already has the capacity to give world class internet speeds to American households. Instead of allowing the full connection speeds to be available to their customers, however, Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner (TWC), and others decide to intentionally restrict and slow internet speeds. The plan for these companies is to occasional boost speeds slightly, every few years or when public pressure mounts, to create the illusion of constant updates and maintenance as justification for increased prices on the consumer when in reality those increased prices were pure profit. This scheme has been exposed on a few occasions with the introduction of Google Fiber, Google’s new plan to give 1,000 Mbs connections to cities and towns across America. In march, as Google announced they were bringing their super high-speed internet to Charlotte, North Carolina, Time Warner Cable announced that they would immediately raise internet speeds in the area by 6 times with no increase in price to their customers.
Bernie has been on opposing sides of the interest of ISP’s like Verizon, TWC, or Comcast various times, whether regarding internet structure, net neutrality, or workers rights within the industry. With this relationship in mind, fighting the internet access gatekeepers head on should be of little concern to an empowered Sanders Administration. There are already examples of local governments in the country announcing bold plans and actions to provide their citizens with an increasingly essential service. The most notable example would be Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the city decided that they were going to provide blistering 10-Gig internet speeds to its residents essentially as a right. Just as with Google Fiber, the ISP’s in the area contested this municipal internet proposal fiercely, as well as promising to raise speeds quickly, but in the end, the city government won and the citizens of Chattanooga enjoy guaranteed quality internet service and this plan has spread to countless more towns across the nation.
The bold action that was taken by cities like Chattanooga to provide citizens with a public option for high-quality internet service, coupled with the greed, sluggishness, and dangerous power ISP gatekeepers have should make the course of action quite clear on the national level for a Sanders administration. Under the TIER Act, Internet services should be nationalized as a utility of the commons and out of the hands of cable companies. This will help provide the internet as a universal service like universal healthcare under Bernie’s “Medicare-For-All” single-payer system. No matter where someone lives they would be guaranteed decent internet service. More recently, Bernie tweeted some statistics, revealing the dire state of our broadband networks, and the need to cover those in rural areas and others not usually covered by the big cable monopolies. Shortly after that, the campaign expounded on that further in a new policy posted on their website titled, “Improving The Rural Economy”.
Finally, we reach one of the biggest and potentially crippling infrastructure networks in the country, our aging electrical grid. The history of electric power has been driven by innovations discovered in the United States at nearly every stage. Since we were on the cusp of discovery and innovation in electricity, we were also among the first to create a nationwide electrical grid. Unfortunately, this means that the country is now saddled with a massive aging infrastructure with components that have been unchanged for over a century as the ASCE notes:
“The electric grid in the United States consists of a system of interconnected power generation, transmission facilities, and distribution facilities, some of which date back to the 1880s… Aging equipment has resulted in an increasing number of intermittent power disruptions, as well as vulnerability to cyber attacks. Significant power outages have risen from 76 in 2007 to 307 in 2011.”
The most immediate consequence of our lack of electrical grid investment is the rapid increase in large-scale outages caused by major and even minor weather events. These disruptive outages have become so numerous in metropolitan areas across the nation that they can be compared to the rolling blackout and brownouts experienced in developing nations such as India or Bangladesh. As the International Business Times notes, The US power grid blacks out more than any other developed nation. Though Americans may believe these weather-induced blackouts are the norm, in many European nations the events are far more rare. This is due to the fact that most of western Europe had to rebuild their grids after WW2, so they are much newer and much better maintained.
To deal with America’s grid problem, many have proposed overhauling to a “smart grid” system. The smart grid would be a series of central nodes, distributing power to areas in need via an automated system, with smart meters acting as sensors to measure demand on down to individual buildings and homes. This could help more efficiently allocate power to stop lines from sagging due to being over saturated with current which can cause outages. This efficiency also helps quickly determine outage zones to prevent the problem from ballooning into a major blackout. Another great benefit is that this added efficiency means a cut down on wasted power, and thus a greener electric grid. All of these reasons make perfectly clear why the construction of a national smart grid should be a top priority for a Sanders Administration and a crucial part of the TIER Act. A smart grid sending green power across the nation is one of the last key pieces to building an overarching national infrastructure system that will be the envy of the modern world if we have the fortitude to implement it.