Hearing Recap – Connecting Americans to Prosperity: How Infrastructure Can Bolster Inclusive Economic Growth
WASHINGTON – On February 9th, 2022, the U.S. House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth – led by Chairman Jim Himes (CT-04) – held a hearing, “Connecting Americans to Prosperity: How Infrastructure Can Bolster Inclusive Economic Growth,” to consider how to build 21st century infrastructure that connects more Americans to economic opportunity. Witnesses and Select Committee Members discussed the overall economic impacts of infrastructure investments, how past decisions had left certain communities behind, and the need to ensure future oriented investments equitably support communities nationwide.
“Over the last two centuries, we have seen time and again a remarkable mixture of public and private investment that has built out our nation’s infrastructure, going back to George Washington helping build the C&O Canal at the country's birth, to the expansion of canals, and to the subsidization of railroads in the mid and late 19th century,” said Chairman Himes. “It is also true that much of this investment was done, certainly in the 1950s and earlier, in a way that advantaged some Americans and disadvantaged others.”
“Today we will discuss how past policies have negatively impacted certain communities and led to the marginalization and the decrease of opportunity associated with those infrastructure projects,” continued Chairman Himes. “We will also try to learn from those mistakes, so that future investments and subsequent prosperity is inclusive. Congress has the opportunity to follow in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s footsteps with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and in doing so, we can contribute meaningfully to the future prosperity of every American.”
The following witnesses testified before the Select Committee about the economic benefits of investing in infrastructure, as well as current economic disparities from past infrastructure projects and equitable paths forward:
Dr. Carlos Martín, David M. Rubenstein Fellow, The Brookings Institution; Director of the Remodeling Futures Program, Harvard University, testified on the impact infrastructure has historically had on the U.S. economy and explained how infrastructure investments have a direct correlation to economic prosperity.
“The evidence is overwhelming and conclusive that there have been disparities in the quantity and quality of economic benefits that infrastructure provides across communities of different income and wealth and in the distribution of their burdens,” said Dr. Martín. He described “examples of infrastructure plans that center fairness and opportunities to ensure that the rules for building and maintaining our future infrastructure are fair for everyone” when advising the Committee how to ensure equity in infrastructure investment. Lastly, Dr. Martín explained that “federal guidance is needed to set a transparent foundation for all states for future growth, not to keep up a pretense that it was fair in the past and benefit the greater good rather than just one segment of the public and disproportionately burdening another.”
Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies, Director of the Center for Technology Innovation, Co-Editor-In-Chief of TechTank, The Brookings Institution, discussed why closing the digital divide must be prioritized to promote an inclusive digital ecosystem.
“Closing the digital divide must be about addressing poverty, geographic isolation, and social isolation,” said Dr. Turner-Lee. “Having equity at the core of states’ planning will motivate leaders to better identify the problems and the stakeholders who need to be at the table representing digitally disconnected constituents, like school and community leaders, as well as other practitioners and community activists.” In closing, Dr. Turner-Lee testified that "broadband has become increasingly important to our nation, citizens, and their local communities. It is imperative that efforts to advance existing and emerging communications infrastructure be thoughtful, and center equity as part of the planning and decision-making processes for where and to whom we extend these networks."
Mr. Rick Wade, Senior Vice President of Strategic Alliances and Outreach, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, focused on the profound costs that existing disparities in public infrastructure continue to have on disadvantaged communities, including communities of color.
“For many communities – whether minority, Appalachian, tribal, urban, or rural – an inclusive economic infrastructure does not exist,” said Mr. Wade. “To close the opportunity gaps, we must do more than make up for the lack of investment in the past, we must ensure that these communities have access to the infrastructure of the future.” Furthermore, Mr. Wade emphasized the importance of having America’s eight million minority-owned businesses represented in these discussions, adding that “an inclusive investment in infrastructure can also benefit minority-owned businesses, create higher-paying jobs and help to close the wealth gap. It is not only a moral imperative but a matter of our country’s economic competitiveness.” In closing, Mr. Wade stated, “the historic bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to close the opportunity gaps that exist in our nation’s core infrastructure.”
Ms. Eileen Higgins, Commissioner, Miami-Dade County, District 5, Vice-Chair of the Transportation Steering Committee of the National Association of Counties, discussed counties’ role in infrastructure implementation and how to use infrastructure investments to bridge equity gaps and bring access to opportunity for areas where people have long lingered in poverty.
Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz introduced her colleague from Miami-Dade Count stating, “Ms. Higgins will provide this committee with firsthand knowledge of how the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provided vital lifelines to our communities during the pandemic. She can also explain how these transformative laws helped local leaders confront long-term systemic barriers to equitable economic prosperity, growth, and stability. These are critically important stories that we need to explore, and I am thankful that there is a platform like this one in this committee to do so.”
“America’s counties are eager to work with federal partners on infrastructure projects that will create literal paths to prosperity,” said Ms. Higgins. “For Miami-Dade County, and counties across the country, this means a strong intergovernmental partnership that prioritizes local decision-making in identifying impactful projects and the removal of bureaucratic barriers to accessing federal funds. That’s how we speed up implementation of the critical infrastructure Americans need, like expanding public transit that connects low-income residents to good jobs and building affordable housing near those transit lines.” In closing, Ms. Higgins noted that “now is the moment to use these infrastructure investments to bridge equity gaps and bring access to opportunity for people that have long lingered in poverty.”
Mr. Neal Crabtree, Foreman, Pipeline Welder, explained the importance of pipelines as critical energy infrastructure and the opportunity this presents for American workers.
“As someone who’s spent the last 25 years in energy infrastructure, I’ve seen and been a working part of a major achievement for America. Realizing the importance for energy independence, hundreds of thousands of men and women chose careers in this field and for the first time, America achieved that goal and has since been rewarded with lower energy cost for all.” Mr. Crabtree stated that “just like our roads and bridges, the nation’s pipeline grid is aging. And just like roads and bridges need our attention, our pipelines need to be maintained, strengthened, and in some cases capacity added.”
This hearing produced the following notable points on the issue of streamlining environmental and regulatory processes for quicker project approvals, as well as expanding broadband internet access to rural communities:
Following the witness testimonials, Chairman Jim Himes underscored the bipartisan support that streamlining environmental approval processes received from both the Majority and Minority witnesses. “Ms. Higgins and Mr. Crabtree, you both made a point that we need to do a better job of streamlining the approval process,” said Chairman Himes. “These approval processes exist for a reason in that everybody gets to speak up about environmental concerns. We don’t want our infrastructure destroying communities, but there is no reason why they shouldn’t be more efficient and more rapid.”
Ranking Member Bryan Steil concurred, saying “I totally agree; I think there really are some unique opportunities where we can streamline the approval process and at the same time not actually degrade our key environmental provisions.”
Eileen Higgins reacted to areas of agreement among her fellow witnesses and lawmakers during the hearing Q&A. “There was strong agreement on the need to make sure that we accelerate the implementation of these infrastructure projects by working to streamline things like permitting or other reviews,” said Ms. Higgins, expressing her hope that “people who watch today understand that the commitment to fix and build our infrastructure is extensive and that counties, particularly us in local governments, are ready to get started and we as counties look forward to being great partners with the federal government.”
Dr. Carlos Martín stated, “there is a lot of agreement about making sure that any additional guidelines, any additional statutes, or program rules that create regulatory scenarios, are made efficient and I think there is nobody who would disagree with that and that was true in a bipartisan fashion in this group.” On what he wanted the audience to take away from this hearing, Dr. Martín said, “I certainly hope that the audience realizes that infrastructure is social, physical infrastructure is social and it’s not just wires and concrete and pipes that we imagine, but it always has a social agenda and social impact from everything from how its designed, who builds it, and who is allowed to build it, and its effect.”
Mr. Neal Crabtree reacted to what were his biggest takeaways from the hearing and areas he felt garnered broad support. “I think my biggest takeaway was the fact the chairman recognized the permitting process when it comes to spending government money and even from the private sector about how overwhelming it could be and that hopefully we can get something done about that.”
Rep. Angie Craig (MN-02) asked Dr. Lee, “what policy choices would you recommend to this committee and this Congress as we continue to prioritize expanding broadband access to currently un- and underserved rural areas? And do you think that the $65 billion investment included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill is enough?” Dr. Turner-Lee’s response was that the existing broadband network maps need to be improved upon to accurately reflect existing broadband coverage across the country. When it comes to providing broadband in un- and underserved rural areas, Dr. Turner-Lee notes that further study of these rural areas are key to addressing these disparities. Lastly, Dr. Turner-Lee noted that while the $65 billion broadband investment in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 is “the largest down payment that we have,” it ultimately needs to be doubled to cover all of America.
The Select Committee presented recorded video testimonials of individuals communicating their personal experiences with infrastructure disparities:
David A. Garza, Commissioner Precinct 3 of Cameron County, Texas from San Benito, TX
Commissioner Garza talked about how San Benito, Texas – the largest area in the U.S. not served by an interstate highway – has one of the highest poverty rates in the state. He explained that much of the region’s economic activity would benefit from greater transportation access once it’s connected to the highway system, and investments in transportation infrastructure for underserved communities like San Benito would help economically vulnerable Americans prosper and improve their economic well-being.
Ray Allen, Former Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development from Madison, WI
Mr. Allen discussed the issue of transportation access, and the role nonprofits play in partnering with the business community to address their needs. Using an example of transportation accessibility in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he painted a picture of the obstacles that people in his state encounter going to work and finding employment opportunities due to bus routes ending abruptly at the county line.
Michelle Schroeder, Merchants Bank Assistant Vice President, Licensed Crop Insurance Agent from Welch, MN
Ms. Schroeder described her challenges with broadband internet access and the impact it has on her economic stability and quality of life. “With dial-up internet, it is difficult to keep up,” said Ms. Schroeder. “Not having good internet can cause lots of problems with Zoom meetings. Broadband access keeps us connected to each other. It connects us to our lives. I’m hoping with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that we will have faster internet so that every part of our lives that we need the internet for will improve. We need to get this done because it’s the way of life now.”
Watch the full Storyteller video here.
Summary of Memorandum Prepared by the Select Committee’s Majority Staff:
Why Infrastructure Matters to Inclusive Economic Growth
Investments in physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, public transit, broadband internet, and drinking water) are critical to creating a strong and sustainable economy. When designed and implemented effectively, sustainably, and inclusively, physical infrastructure connects people to economic and employment opportunities, as well as critical services that significantly improve quality of life.
History of Federal Infrastructure Policies
From 18th century road construction to 19th century financing of canals, railroads, and the transcontinental telegraph, the U.S. federal government has facilitated infrastructure investments that foster expanded economic growth. Following World War II, the creation of the Interstate Highway System (IHS) spurred significant national economic gains by efficiently connecting communities and facilitating interstate commerce. One study attributed approximately 25% of the nation’s productivity gains between 1950-1989 to increased investment in the highway system. Another study estimates that without the HIS, real GDP would be nearly 4% lower, with a quarter of that loss coming from reduced growth.
The U.S. government also facilitated the creation of the internet through government funded research ventures, catalyzing the digital economy which today grows at a rate over three and a half times the rate of the overall economy. Broadband helps job seekers access employment and job-training opportunities, while businesses benefit from e-commerce and e-recruiting. The impacts have been particularly powerful in rural areas, where broadband access and adoption is associated with higher rates of new business formation, home values, and population and job growth.
The Current State of Infrastructure in the United States
In early 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave U.S. infrastructure an overall score of C-minus—classifying it as “poor” and “at risk.” The ASCE report finds that 43% of public roadways are in poor or mediocre condition, 65% of counties have average connection speeds lower than the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) definition of broadband, and 7.5% of the nation’s bridges - a total of 46,154 - are considered structurally deficient. The ASCE projects that failing to repair these deficiencies will reduce GDP by $10.3 trillion by 2039, including an approximate reduction of $2.4 trillion of exports and $1.8 trillion of exports.
Failing public infrastructure across the U.S. has perpetuated economic disparities in rural and urban areas and those with significant populations of color, hindering their access to economic opportunity and posing direct threats to health. Connectivity gaps, limited digital skills, and unaffordable options keeps broadband out of reach for millions of households in rural and urban areas. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this digital divide, including along income lines, resulted in 15 million students without broadband internet, exacerbating a “homework gap” between school age children with and without high-speed internet at home.
The Future of Infrastructure in the United States
The $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021 was designed to rehabilitate and modernize existing U.S. infrastructure and build new, resilient infrastructure, helping support economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation provides $550 billion over five years for new investments, including $110 billion for roads, bridges, and major projects, $66 billion for passenger and freight rail, and $11 billion for transportation safety. The IIJA also marks the largest investment in clean energy technology and climate adaptation and resilience, including $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations and another $7.5 billion for clean school buses and ferries. Finally, the legislation aims to close inequities in access to economic opportunity, including $65 billion for broadband, $39 billion for public transit, and $1 billion for projects to remove barriers to opportunity created by past infrastructure projects.
Economists project powerful economic impacts over the next five years as a result of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021:
- Creating 772,400 new jobs per year, including an average of 200,000 jobs just from transportation-related funding by 2027.
- Increasing average disposable income by $232 per household per year from additional transportation infrastructure investment for highways and public transit.
- Every $1 invested in highways and public transit will generate $3.60 and $3.40 in economic activity, respectively.
- Lower inflationary pressures.