Biden can inspire America to build again

Events at the US Capitol last week underscored the president-elect’s mandate to rebuild a fractured America. Investing in infrastructure may be his best bet.

The images burst onto screens around the world at lightning speed and, as an American, struck like a blunt force. The US Capitol was under siege. To see rioters violate the domed monument to democracy was, at first, shocking, then breathtaking and finally heart-wrenching.

This was the scene and sentiment that the outgoing president, Donald Trump, helped deliver as part of the final chapter of his four-year tenure to rebuild a struggling nation.

The five lives lost deserve their full amount of grief, for despite what duties or motivations drove them to the Capitol on an early January afternoon, this now infamous day was needlessly allowed to occur.

But watching the Capitol, a historic national edifice commonly known as the people’s house, being ransacked by its own citizens also deserves a moment of sad reflection. One of the reasons why we as humans erect great structures is to dream about what else can be built.

That’s how, over the course of 245 years, a system of highways and railroads connected two oceans, and expansive bridges helped communities flourish. So much of this nation’s infrastructure, though, has fallen into disrepair. As thick smoke lingered throughout the halls of Congress, it was impossible not to be reminded of decades of political gridlock and dysfunction that has backlogged much-needed improvements.

Making the US whole again is the task that president-elect Joe Biden will assume on 20 January. It just so happens that focusing the national attention on building new infrastructure may be the best antidote to move the country forward.

Biden will take office with both chambers of Congress in his party’s command and a mandate to do what’s necessary to unify deep divisions. Taking steps early on, through new legislation or existing measures, to provide states with federal funding without mandates for which projects to support, will empower their constituents to once again dream big about infrastructure. It will boost the pandemic-ravaged economy while instilling a sense of wonder about what can be built.

Recovery through construction has been Biden’s vision from the start. “At this moment of profound crisis, we have the opportunity to build a more resilient, sustainable economy,” his infrastructure plan reads, calling for a $2 trillion “accelerated investment” in roads, bridges, transit systems, power grids, solar panels and wind turbines, internet connectivity and electric vehicle charging stations.

To help navigate his plan, the president-elect has chosen an unlikely political newcomer to be his secretary of transportation – Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana who competed with Biden in the presidential campaign. The plan Buttigieg released was similar to Biden’s, calling for an approach to revitalising infrastructure with a clean economy in mind.

Martin Klepper, a former director of the Department of Transportation’s Build America Bureau, said that Buttigieg will be “sensitive to the needs of communities to rebuild their infrastructure”.

As a mayor, “he’s taken federal funds and figured out how to use them effectively,” Klepper tells Infrastructure Investor. “He recognises that federally mandating how to use money is not necessarily the most effective way to get infrastructure projects built.”

In other ways, Buttigieg’s plan went a step further than Biden’s, highlighting ways to reform the US fuels tax and Highway Trust Fund to consider vehicles miles travelled, which will account for the growing fleet of electric vehicles hitting US roads.

The failure of US politics in ignoring the nation’s infrastructure has been long running. It has reached the point where it has become the butt of jokes. It is a failure that, in its own way, helps to question the idea of the US being a leader of nations.

Biden’s key job: start rebuilding.