“Infrastructure” is the Rorschach blot of budget politics, a catch-all for “build stuff” that can be touted as a magic bullet or dismissed as a liberal pork-laden boondoggle. But it’s not impossible to set some ground rules for steering clear of the perennial bridge to nowhere.
In the Public Interest (ITPI), together with Partnership for Working Families, has laid out “best practices” for governments making deals with the devil—i.e., “public-private partnerships” or P3s—to be applied to legislation and project contracts in order to protect the integrity and social priorities of infrastructure investment.
Reflecting some of the more progressive community-workforce agreements and development agendas that some cities have developed with community and labor groups, the ITPI report recommends that contracts include employment opportunities for “disadvantaged communities, like low-income families, women, people of color, and those with a criminal record.” This system can be extended beyond the initial construction to foster long-term development, so local workers get dibs on the permanent jobs that maintain the project or serve the businesses sited on it (while the improved infrastructural backbone continues to benefit communities through greater overarching efficiency).
Linking employment provisions of projects to unions helps raise standards across different stakeholder industries by ensuring more stable career-track employment, fair-labor protections, and inclusive apprenticeship programs. For example, Los Angeles’s light-rail plan, which was developed cooperatively with labor and community groups, includes hiring targets for communities suffering high unemployment rates and reserves half of apprenticeship jobs for area residents.
But meeting community needs requires a deep enough investment. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the country needs to invest over $1.6 trillion just to restore its infrastructure to a sustainable quality, about $200 billion yearly up to 2020.
While both leading Democratic candidates have boasted big infrastructure plans, they need to be weighed in both volume and the quality of the investment. Bernie Sanders has championed the Rebuild America Act to invest $1 trillion over the next 5 years” in projects like highway repair to make roads less polluted and congested; fixing up the estimated one-quarter of bridges now in severe disrepair; or restoring some of the century-old pipelines in danger of erupting or causing massive health problems. Hillary Clinton has floated a comparatively paltry $275 billion 5-year infrastructure plan, while painting Sanders’s Keynesian ambitions as unrealistically profligate.