Viewpoint: Spent wisely, Biden’s stimulus can revitalize Delaware’s infrastructure
By Brian Bolender
Fresh off the success of passing the landmark $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP), President Biden recently rolled out an even more ambitious follow-up act: a $2 trillion proposal to rebuild America’s infrastructure. The ARP commits more than $1.3 billion to Delaware, which can be used for water, sewer, and broadband projects (among many other potential needs); the infrastructure bill could add several billion more.
Our federal and state leaders must now work quickly to set smart priorities and put controls in place to ensure these funds are spent where they are needed most.
In the middle of an unprecedented surge of federal largesse, it will be tempting to imagine we can solve every problem all at once. Large stimulus programs need strong oversight and prioritization. We can’t afford to waste this once-in-a-century opportunity to rebuild our state’s foundations for economic growth and shared prosperity.
We should start by acknowledging that not all infrastructure categories are created equal. Many traditional infrastructure categories – like our roads, bridges, water and electrical systems – have massive maintenance backlogs and funding gaps, and no realistic pathway to filling these gaps without taxpayer support.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates we’re underinvesting in our water infrastructure by more than $80 billion each year nationwide – and the cumulative bill for unmet water infrastructure needs may top $400 billion by the end of the decade. Our roads and bridges face a $786 billion funding backlog. Our power grid is projected to face a $197 billion investment gap by 2029.
These urgent needs must be at the top of Delaware’s infrastructure wish list. Our long-term economic competitiveness is at stake: it’s harder to stay ahead of global economic rivals like China when our water mains are constantly breaking, our trucking fleet is stuck in traffic on crumbling roads, and our power grid lacks resilience.
Broadband, by contrast, is a relative success story in most areas of Delaware. Roughly 98% of our state has high-speed service available, and we’re consistently among the top 10 states in terms of average speeds. And there’s historically been plenty of private investment dollars eager to fund network projects in most areas – to the tune of $80 billion a year nationwide.
To be sure, there are still broadband gaps in some rural, higher-cost areas. It makes a lot of sense to set aside ARP and infrastructure bill dollars to finally bring high-speed broadband infrastructure to these unserved rural communities. But it makes a lot less sense to spend scarce taxpayer dollars building networks where they already exist. After all, every dollar that gets spent on duplicative broadband projects is a dollar not available to spend on transportation and utility projects where no private funding is available.
This kind of smart, targeted approach to broadband funding will also help ensure better results than we’ve seen in some earlier federal programs, such as a Department of Agriculture program from the 2009 stimulus bill that spent $3.5 billion and promised to connect 7 million rural homes, but ended up connecting only a few hundred thousand.
This time, the Biden administration can guarantee better outcomes by taking preventative action early. Federal rules should require that every dollar spent by state and local governments be posted online, and prioritized based on clear criteria that ensure buildout funds only go to unserved areas that need them.
Passing a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill is no easy feat and steering an even larger infrastructure bill through a bitterly divided Congress would be a huge political accomplishment for Delaware’s favorite son. But these legislative wins pale next to the scale of the effort it will take to actually put these dollars to work on the ground, building the infrastructure that will power our economy for decades to come.
Smart priorities and effective oversight will help ensure these dollars – and the work they fund – have the greatest possible impact.
Brian Bolender serves as president of American Council of Engineering Companies Delaware.