With a single tweet, President Trump ended months of speculation as to whether or not Congress would provide another round of COVID relief before the election. As he announced on Twitter, the President has his sights on passing a post-election “major Stimulus Bill.” While the outcome of the election is unforeseeable, the need for major stimulus for the water infrastructure community is something every voter can get behind.
The loyal readers of my blog posts (hi mom!) know that I’m endlessly fascinated with infrastructure. I’ve yet to come across a port, a dam, or even a sewer system that I haven’t wanted to know more about. How did it get built? Did Congress play a role? Was it completed on time (ha!)? Or on budget (hahahahahaha!)? Did anyone lose their job (or reputation) in the process? Years ago when my husband and I started taking summer road trips we’d happen upon a beautiful old bridge and he’d ask me if I wanted to stop. My answer was always an enthusiastic, “YES!” These days, my husband doesn’t bother to ask. He just pulls over to let me indulge my inner infrastructure geek (or he speeds up hoping I won’t notice the structure).
Like most others, COVID-19 meant no summer trip so we played it safe and stayed home. But just because a summer road trip wasn’t in the cards, that didn’t stop me from thinking about infrastructure in a big way. I’ve spent a lot of time revisiting the actions and outcomes of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the 2009 congressional response to the Great Recession, to help clients shape and promote ideas for an eventual infrastructure stimulus package. One highly successful infrastructure program that was a child of ARRA is called BUILD. It’s a multi modal competitive grant process housed at the US Department of Transportation designed to help communities tackle their large, complex, and often expensive transportation priorities. For the transportation community, BUILD has been the answer to those transit, rail, and highway projects that don’t fit into traditional federal programs or processes. BUILD has been the answer for transportation projects that require coordination over multiple federal transportation agencies. And for nearly a decade, BUILD has been the answer for transportation projects that need a big injection of federal funding. For those of us working on large scale water investments, perhaps BUILD also holds the answer for water.
BUILD was literally created overnight. What started out as a line item in ARRA (thank you Senator Murray) has morphed into one of the most popular modern transportation funding opportunities available. Forget what you know about the federal legislative process because none of that applied to BUILD. Congress didn’t spend months writing legislation to authorize BUILD. Likewise Congress didn’t spend years more moving BUILD from an authorized to an appropriated program. No, they just saw a need and an opportunity and they made it happen.
When I think of water infrastructure, our nation’s levees, waterways, stormwater conveyance systems, drinking water and ecosystems are in desperate need of their own BUILD. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the significant funding for water infrastructure incorporated into various COVID-19 relief packages, H.R. 2 the Moving Forward Act and the House fiscal year 2021 appropriations bills that we’ve seen introduced in the past few months. These are all worthy efforts, but funding alone can’t solve the fundamental challenge facing infrastructure. The water infrastructure landscape in Washington, DC has more potholes than the BUILD program has filled and the nation’s water infrastructure community deserves a new approach. This is the moment to create something transformational for water. Imagine a program that removes the long established silos within the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Bureau of Reclamation and allows for a holistic approach to solving more than one water problem at a time. Senator Murray stood up for transportation back in 2009. Who will stand up and do the same for water in 2020?
Julie Minerva is a Washington, DC based infrastructure advocate who in good, bad, and uncertain times specializes in Civil Works and all things related to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. You can find her at: [email protected]