VIEWPOINT: Infrastructure bill will turbocharge Delaware recovery
The COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed how millions of Americans work and commute. This new era of flexibility and remote work is a huge opportunity for Delaware’s economy – so long as we have the physical and digital infrastructure in place to support it.
Remote workers freed from the need to cluster in overpriced megacities can appreciate the appeal Delaware’s lower cost of living, great schools, and excellent quality of life. Meanwhile, the increased travel flexibility offered by “hybrid” work schedules creates a huge long-term opportunity for our state’s tourism and lodging industries.
But guests planning to work remotely from a hotel or vacation rental first need confidence they’ll be able to stay connected with reliable broadband. And communities hoping to attract new residents need the roads, water, and sewer infrastructure needed to support growth.
That’s why the First State’s future depends on Congress enacting the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The bill’s recent hiccups in the House of Representatives notwithstanding, passing the infrastructure bill remains a critically important necessity for our state.
Promising $1.2 billion for Delaware road projects, $225 million for bridge repairs, and $220 for public transportation needs across the state, President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill would help help ease traffic and reduce the maintenance costs poor roads impose on Delaware drivers every year.
Just as importantly, the bill will deliver the funding needed to deploy high-speed broadband networks to every corner of our state, finally reaching the 21,000 Delawareans in rural areas who still aren’t wired for high-speed internet. This federal funding will backstop the literally groundbreaking broadband plan recently announced by Gov. John Carney and other state leaders.
That’s why the U.S. House must follow the Senate’s lead and come together across ideological lines to pass the infrastructure bill, without letting partisan deadlock or intra-party jockeying derail progress.
But approving the funding needed to upgrade Delaware’s infrastructure is one thing. Making sure the dollars actually get used wisely and effectively is another. History teaches us that rural broadband promises are easier made than kept.
In 2009, for example, President Barack Obama’s American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus bill committed $7 billion to rural broadband programs – but weak guardrails and oversight failures squandered billions of taxpayer dollars. Congressional oversight hearings, Government Accountability Office investigations, and reporting by the New York Times and Politico, documented failed special interest pet projects, duplicative efforts, and billions wasted at the expense of connecting the unserved.
Encouragingly, the bipartisan infrastructure bill was written to avoid repeating those mistakes. It includes clear guardrails to make sure the bill’s $42 billion in rural broadband deployment investments get prioritized for the unconnected rural communities with the greatest needs. And it makes sure that all broadband technologies, and all types of providers, are eligible to compete on equal terms to give taxpayers the best bang for our buck.
Delaware is fortunate to start out in a better position than most states: 98% of our communities are already wired for broadband, at world-class speeds that outpace most states. But for the residents and businesses not yet reached – including off-the-beaten-path hotels and B&Bs in rural areas of Delaware – lack of access remains a major barrier to opportunity.
Congress can’t lose this opportunity to finally deliver high-speed broadband to these long-waiting communities. And the federal and state agencies in charge of awarding the funds can’t afford to squander the funds by repeating past mistakes.
The infrastructure bill reflects a comprehensive plan to build the foundation for decades of growth and opportunity across Delaware, including for our vitally important tourism sector. Congress should seize this opportunity and get the bill over the finish line.
Bill Silva is the chairman of the Delaware Hotel & Lodging Association.