Biden Infrastructure Plan Boosts Broadband and a Lot More

A Brookings Institution panel recently examined how Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal is a chance to build the economy through green jobs, broadband-enabled access to opportunity and improved cargo shipping.

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With Congress heatedly debating President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, members of the public, private and research sectors came together recently to discuss its game-changing potential.

In a recent Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program-hosted panel, “Rebuilding American Infrastructure for the 21st century,” participant U.S. Senator Tom Carper — who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works — said the bill is an opportunity to expand the economy while slowing climate change and better meeting residents’ basic needs.

“We have an opportunity to do great things to get the economy moving — fix our roads, highways, bridges — and do so in a way that is helpful for this planet,” Carper said.

For many panel participants, the right technology investments appeared key to achieving these kinds of economic and environmental goals. Several speakers also said during the panel that the infrastructure proposal should be viewed not only as a necessary fix to stop the degradation of existing systems but also as a forward-looking opportunity for state, local and federal government and other partners to proactively advance toward a more desirable future. Designing for the future also means both preparing for changing environmental conditions and experimenting with technology to be ready for developments that may come, said Austin Ramirez, CEO of hydraulic components provider HUSCO International.

“We often think of resilience as resilience to climate change, and that’s important, but we also need to (think) about resilience in terms of the robustness of our infrastructure in light of technological change,” Ramirez said. “We need to make sure what we’re building is relevant for not just the next five years, 10 years, but the next 50 years.”

GREEN JOBS

Among the major technological shifts is the ever-growing push toward more environmentally friendly systems and solutions. According to Chris Castro, the city of Orlando's director of sustainability and resilience, green energy initiatives like those in Biden’s plan can bring significant employment boosts. Growing opportunities in the renewable energy sector may be able to more than replace jobs lost from the phasing out of fossil fuels, he said.

“There are over 250,000 solar jobs in the country and it’s still in the low single digit percentages of power in the entire United States. When you compare that, coal mining jobs are less than 50,000 currently and dwindling,” Castro said. “One of the greatest economic and job creation opportunities of the 21st century is this transition toward a low-carbon economy,”

The solar employment figure Castro cited appears to come from solar energy advocacy nonprofit The Solar Foundation’s most recent national solar jobs census, which reported on 2019, and his coal miner count aligns with federal data for the same year. Solar accounted for about 1 percent of energy produced in the U.S. that year while coal represented 14 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

THE BROADBAND BOOST

Landing such solar energy jobs — as well as careers in nearly any other sectors — is typically much easier for residents who are able to use high-speed Internet access to visit job hunting sites, a point the Metropolitan Policy Program underscored in a report it launched to coincide with the panel event. More than 16 million households lack this broadband access, however, the study said. Biden’s infrastructure proposal aims to tackle this, with calls for connecting all residents with “affordable, reliable, high-speed” broadband.

“The digitization of everything has transformed broadband from a luxury to a necessity,” said Metropolitan Policy Program Fellow Adie Tomer during the event. “We can’t prosper as a society if people can’t connect to the modern economy.”

Job seekers are not the only ones who benefit from such a move, because giving households broadband access can put them on better financial standing in various other ways, such as by enabling residents to use digital banking tools and helping students develop skills via online classes and resources, the report stated. Extending reliable Internet connectivity to more areas also could help merchants, with e-commerce retailers able to reach more potential customers as the number of broadband-equipped households expands.

TRADE AND COMMERCE

Building a stronger economy can also rely on a combination of traditional brick-and-pavement development and newer technology. Senator Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, emphasized that a central piece of national economic growth rests on creating and maintaining physical bridge, road and waterway infrastructure that can help U.S. farmers, manufacturers and other businesses deliver their goods to ports quickly and reliably, after which products can then be shipped for sale to a growing base of middle-class consumers worldwide. Any issues during any stage of transit could lead to foreign competitors making the sale to overseas consumers instead, she warned.

“Any delays in transportation infrastructure costs all of us,” Cantwell said. “Freight can’t wait.”

Carper, separately, pointed to how greener technology can play a role and modernize the vehicles used to transport goods.

“Not many people talk about hydrogen fueling stations, but for large trucks hydrogen could be really good,” Carper said.

Installing a variety of such stations along roadways could make it more feasible for drivers to use long-haul vehicles that are equipped with hydrogen powered fuel cells. These vehicles power their motors via electricity produced in chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen within the fuel cells. Unlike gas-burning vehicles that release carbon dioxide exhaust fumes, fuel cell-powered ones only emit water vapor.

PAYING FOR IT

While heralding the long-term and widespread economic gains offered by the federal infrastructure plan, some speakers also expressed concern over its funding these and other initiatives. Sweeping changes come at a price, and current plans outlined by the White House propose funding the projects by adjusting corporate tax law. Those adjustments include both measures for generating new revenue through raising corporate tax rates and closing loopholes some major companies use to avoid paying taxes, as well as efforts to trim some federal expenses by ending subsidies and tax credits offered to the fossil fuel industry, freeing up that money for other purposes.

Some speakers argued that the federal government should consider a variety of other fundraising tools as well. Debra Knopman, a principal researcher at RAND Corporation, advocated for efforts to entice more private investment in infrastructure in general — not only for a major project like this. Ramirez, representing a voice from the business sector, said Biden’s plan should draw on more financial sources including some form of user fees — which could mean anything from gas taxes to highway toll collections — and a carbon tax.

“It’s not funded appropriately,” Ramirez said of the Biden plan. “To put all of this infrastructure on the back of a corporate tax increase is a bad strategy.”

Discussion continues to swirl over the federal infrastructure plan, and many members of states and local governments are likely eyeing their wish lists. While many may disagree over specific details and decisions, all are likely to concur that significant investments in traditional and digital infrastructure and related technologies can massively change how residents work, learn and live.

As Tomer commented, “Show us your infrastructure and you’ll show us your priorities.”
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.