In a slight divergence from my normal Inside Washington column, I’d like to take this month’s column to highlight what I believe is our greatest challenge. As construction and infrastructure professionals, discussing the benefits of our collective goal to increase the financing of infrastructure projects would be akin to football players discussing the need to score a touchdown in the huddle. The positive economic impacts, the public health benefits, the tax revenue generated and many other benefits are well known among our ranks. We all know there are benefits to increasing investment and finding new mechanisms for financing projects, but what about those who don’t work in our industry? How can we expect to grow our awareness if our message is only spread amongst those in our circles?
I was recently at a dinner party with some friends. Living and working in D.C. often provides me with more politically active and knowledgeable friend groups than I have outside the beltway. These friends, though they don’t specifically work in infrastructure-related jobs, all work for the federal government and are, what I would consider, more plugged into politics than your average American.
During our conversations and camaraderie, the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline came up. Nearly all of the participants voiced their opposition to the project, but their rationale might surprise you. Not a single one of my friends voiced opposition along environmental grounds.
Opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline has largely come from environmental repercussion concerns, so I was surprised at the opposition I heard. There are those who rightly point out that the production of oil sand emits higher carbon pollution than the production of conventional crude oil. These opponents, however, fail to recognize that even though oil sands produce more greenhouse gases than conventional oil, these emissions are a mere fraction of those produced by coal — which produces a large portion of American electricity.
Another major point of environmental opponents to Keystone XL is the fear of a spill. The initial proposed route for the pipeline crossed several seismic zones and crosses the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides fresh water to residents in several plains states. Hypothetically, if some seismic activity were to cause a hernia along the pipeline, fear of drinking water contamination abounds. The route has since been changed and environmental studies show little environmental risks.
These are just two of the environmental concerns with building the pipeline, but neither of them portray the real problem the infrastructure construction industry faces. When my friends voiced their opposition to building the Keystone XL pipeline, they argued on the basis of the temporary nature of job creation. They argued that the economic impacts of building the project would be limited to a few thousand jobs over a six-month, or so, timeframe. This is a perfect example of the problem we face selling infrastructure projects to our communities and to our government. They think the few thousand jobs they refer to only include the jobs created to build the pipeline. They do not include the foundry workers that cast the pipes or the truckers that haul them to the jobsite. They don’t see the heavy equipment dealer or the surveyor as jobs created by the project. They see the pipeline as a temporary infrastructure project with a deadline which, when it expires, puts those few thousands of people back in the unemployment line.
These people aren’t dumb or uninformed; they just haven’t been educated in the expansiveness of infrastructure issues. They just don’t understand that there are trillions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects needed by this country, and that when these projects are finished, as with any other infrastructure project, they must move on so that industry, commercial and residential building can be built on top of the infrastructure — bringing whole new waves of job creation. The Keystone XL pipeline is not a one-and-done project. When it’s completed, just as when any water, gas, electric or other utility infrastructure project is completed, the ripple effect creates new projects, new economic development and new financial infusion.
Our industry’s problem is not that we aren’t making headway in Washington in terms of financial investment (we are). Our industry’s problem is that there is a societal ignorance of the importance, scope and need for infrastructure that we as a collective group must address.
We must connect infrastructure to everything any American does. For example, we must make the case that every minute of every day Americans rely on the infrastructure we build. The water they brush their teeth with in the morning, to the drainage systems that keep their roads clear, to the sewage systems that keep waste from backing up into their homes, are all a part of an infrastructure system that directly impacts everything individuals do and touch. We must make the case that the infrastructure we build is the foundation on which all other job creation exists and allows all other industry and economic development to grow.
Schools aren’t built so that students simply do nothing after graduation. Schools are built to give young Americans the tools to go into the country to build, create and become productive members of society. The same is true for infrastructure. Wastewater systems are not built simply to clean the water; they are built to encourage, enable and produce additional building and productivity on top of the infrastructure. Without schools, children aren’t educated just as without infrastructure, business and industry cannot be created.
The infrastructure projects, like Keystone XL, are temporary projects that build an infrastructure, but the job creation and economic development doesn’t end when the worker puts down his shovel. Instead, it just begins.
Will Brown is the Director of Government Affairs for NUCA.