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Redefining Infrastructure for a Changing World

By August 6, 2021September 1st, 2021No Comments

David Inoue

I remember in grade school history classes learning about the New Deal and how many of our modern road systems were built as a result, particularly one road that we drove on regularly in Cincinnati to get from our suburban home to downtown. As Congress considers unprecedented amounts of investment in our nation’s infrastructure, we need to rethink how our investment today best addresses the possibilities and the challenges that we will face in the future.

Roads and bridges are what people think of first when talking infrastructure because that is what fueled much of our growth for the past century. We created a car culture from investments we have made in the vast network of roads and bridges.

Although we are likely to not lose that dependence on cars, the types of cars will be changing. As we move to electric vehicles (EV), the infrastructure to support them must be developed. Right now, EVs remain limited largely to those who own a home with a garage or driveway where the car can be charged overnight.

Practical EV ownership excludes those who rent or park on the street in urban areas. Until charging stations become available for people to charge easily at home or their workplace, EV ownership will remain limited.

In between large urban areas, fast-charging stations will be needed to enable long-distance travels. Perhaps even more than rest stops have been a part of highway driving, EV charging stations will establish new points of interest along the highways.

At current charging speeds, a charging stop can typically take over 30 minutes, more than the typical restroom stop, and to get closer to a 100 percent charge, likely up to an hour, enough time for a full meal, when perhaps a five-minute gas fill up would have resulted in a coffee purchase; now, a family might be spending much more time and money at a stop.

This past year of Covid isolation forced many of us to adjust our lifestyles, actually reducing our dependence on our cars to get to work or school, and instead working and learning from home.

For my family, it meant upgrading our internet service when our basic-level upload speeds became unable to handle four simultaneous Zoom sessions. While we are all hungry to return to in-person interaction at work, school and socializing, virtual meetings are now entrenched as a normal part of our lives.

And yet, too many people remain cut off from reliable broadband internet access. Interestingly, this is one issue that affects urban and rural constituencies similarly. The reasons for why urban vs. rural areas might be less connected might be differently prioritized, but the disparity is real for both.

Sometimes, it is the lack of network build out, or it might be issues of affordability. Just as roads have connected us for the past century, the internet is increasingly what connects us now and in the future.

Ironically, many of the very people who were unable to work from home because they were deemed essential workers were also the people who do not have the luxury of a personal vehicle to get to work.

As public transit systems scaled back services, the workers we depended on to keep grocery stores open found it most difficult to get to work. Anyone who has visited major cities in Europe or Asia has seen a more diverse transportation infrastructure.

Cars remain a significant part of how people get around, but public transit in buses and trains and even bicycling play much more significant roles in most other nations. If we are going to expect these workers to be at work when we need them, we need to make sure to develop the public transit infrastructure to get them to work.

The commonality in all these recommendations for addressing infrastructure improvements are that we must look to the future, but with an eye toward equity. It is not enough to simply throw money at these challenges. We need to do so in a way that will support those who need it most.

Perhaps I should have issued my disclosures at the beginning, but I own two EVs. Right now, the incentives to adopt EV ownership target those who are better off.

Tax credits support those who have higher tax bills and incentives for building home charging infrastructure do nothing for renters or those who park on the street.

Infrastructure investments have traditionally benefited those who are car owners, homeowners and in better neighborhoods. In fact, highways were often constructed in ways that divided and decimated poorer or minority neighborhoods.

As we make further investments — whether to expand EV adoption, expand broadband access or expand public transit — we must also be in consideration of who will benefit from those expansions. Congress is about to make a huge investment in our future. That investment must be targeted so no child, family or worker is left behind.

David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.