Address Infrastructure Reform from Top to Bottom

By Tom Madison

Almost no single issue better personifies Washington gridlock than the sorry state of America’s failing infrastructure. Our roads, bridges, ports, airports, water treatment plants, waste disposal systems and electricity grids are individually and collectively crumbling. There’s unanimous agreement that action is urgently needed, yet Congress continues to sit on its hands, unable or unwilling to develop a coherent approach to address this mounting crisis.

Our nation’s infrastructure assets touch every person’s life, every single day. Yet we’ve become complacent about the safety threats and inconveniences, and accepting of the status quo. To effectuate real change, we must snap out of this malaise, and demand substantive improvements and innovations to revitalize the backbone of the American economy.

Infrastructure reinvestment done right won’t just improve existing roads and bridges—or create temporary construction jobs. It will reinvigorate entire supply chains, reduce barriers to modernization, create opportunities for new investment, and provide a strategic road map for the projects and systems that will be increasingly important in the years ahead.

If we plan effectively, embrace new ideas, and work smart, many of the most impactful efforts in a holistic infrastructure plan won’t require outsized taxpayer contributions. That’s why righting the infrastructure ship must include smart, substantive policy reforms that embrace new ideas and technologies, and eradicate impediments to private capital investment.

For example, encouraging private investment to improve our aging power grid will require government at all levels to get electricity transmission permitting rules in order. Today this approval process, like most government regulation, is widely distributed and unnecessarily difficult. Project developers are required to secure permissions from a panoply of state and local jurisdictions—only to then seek approval from an alphabet soup of federal agencies. Streamlining the process by placing coordinated regulatory authority into the hands of a single convening body would do wonders.

Another essential player in nearly every aspect of infrastructure development and delivery also suffers from a broken permitting system in urgent need of reform—America’s mining industry. Mining may not always be front of mind when thinking about roadways and water systems, but addressing our infrastructure challenges simply cannot be accomplished without an efficient, responsive U.S. mining industry. The minerals and metals necessary to improve our vast array of infrastructure is truly dizzying: Millions of tons of steel to reinforce highways and erect towering bridges, silver to support aging water treatment systems, copper to conduct power across a vast web of transmission lines, and molybdenum to strengthen and enhance structural alloys. Minerals, metals, aggregates, and other resources from American mines are the essential ingredients that comprise and support the construction supplies and methods that build and maintain our infrastructure.

Despite ever-growing demand for the raw materials necessary to rebuild our infrastructure and support the technologies that define modern life, the U.S. continues to backslide into a crippling reliance on imports from foreign mines. Every day these imports come at the expense of American jobs and ingenuity, and our redundant, convoluted, and expensive mine permitting requirements are largely to blame.

Securing a new mining permit in Canada and Australia—nations with environmental safeguards comparable to our own—takes just two to three years. The U.S. average is seven years or more. It’s no wonder that, despite America’s incredible $6.2 trillion in mineral reserves, mining investment is fleeing to other nations. In 1990, 20 percent of all global mining investment flowed into the U.S. Today, it’s only 8 percent. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, America is now fully reliant on imports of 18 important minerals, and 50 percent or more import reliant on another 30. This is very alarming.

Addressing America’s crumbling infrastructure simply can’t wait any longer. We need fundamental changes to the way we fund, finance, supply, and deliver projects. Including meaningful mine permitting reforms in upcoming infrastructure legislation will be enormously beneficial. Let’s leverage this opportunity to self-supply a majority of the raw materials we need to rebuild our infrastructure, stanch the flow of foreign mineral imports, and keep American taxpayer dollars here at home.

Tom Madison is executive director of the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy. He has also served as commissioner of the NYS Department of Transportation, executive director of the NYS Thruway Authority and Canal Corporation, and U.S. Federal Highway Administrator.