By: Sarah Sieloff, the Exective Director at the Center for Creative Land Recycling and Dan French, the CEO and Founder of Brownfield Listings
This piece also appeared on the Brownfield Listings blog.
With the need for infrastructure investment greater than ever, we're still waiting on Washington.
We’re all still waiting for Washington to move on infrastructure. Decades of deferred maintenance have built up and now costs hundreds of billions of dollars every year in unnecessary time, fuel and deadly accidents. While our old systems decay, we dare not dream of the next generation infrastructure that could give us the edge on our global competition, many of whom are way ahead of us in the infrastructure race.
But we need to start dreaming big again. Too many communities aren’t aging well. And today we find our built environment badly neglected at a time when changes in our natural environment seem to be accelerating. Meanwhile, our rapidly advancing economy is changing the needs of households, businesses and government at all levels.
With so many high needs, interest rates still relatively low and corporate profits and cash reserves at all time highs, it’s time for an infrastructure and redevelopment surge to drive our national economic development and revitalization strategy.
We can refit older, obsolete infrastructure and remake underutilized places. Blighted and brownfield properties can be redeveloped to suit the needs of today’s businesses, workers, and residents. In doing so we can reinvigorate the tax base, spur private investment, create jobs, revitalize land and bolster economic competitiveness. Studies also show that redevelopment has strong multiplier effects that cascade through surrounding properties and throughout entire neighborhoods, raising property values and attracting new residents and businesses. Redevelopment begets more redevelopment, which can have a compounding effect on economic development, tax base, quality of place and quality of life.
We should expand public investment redevelopment because (1) our decaying infrastructure is literally killing our money, time and us, and (2) it’s the kind of investment that pays for itself and then some. Public redevelopment programs have consistently huge return on investment. The EPA brownfields program, for example, targets potentially polluted properties for assessment and cleanup--which the private sector has trouble starting up sua sponte--leverages $18 of private sector capital for every public dollar. In Minnesota, the state’s brownfield program boasts an even more impressive $44:1 return. Studies also estimate that every acre of brownfield redeveloped produces an estimated 10 jobs and saves 4.5 acres of open space, so it hits two other areas of need.
In St. Joseph, a local foundation received a $200,000 EPA brownfields cleanup grant to remediate and convert a former warehouse into community meeting space, Foundation programs and offices. The cleanup removed petroleum, asbestos, and lead contamination in the site’s soil, and today, this former warehouse provides civic education and training for young people, with the capacity to reach more than 15,000 students per year.
Despite these outsized gains, the Trump administration's budget proposed drastic cuts to EPA’s brownfields program and eliminated funding for workforce training and several important regional projects, like the effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Congress has thus far rejected the idea of reducing these kinds of high impact, high return investments. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies actually increased brownfield funding by $10 million and included $5 billion for badly needed water infrastructure (to make upgrades to, in some cases, systems more than 50 years old).
It isn’t the infrastructure surge we need to make up for generations of neglect and chronic underinvestment, but it’s something. The backlog of deferred maintenance is so high and the opportunities to meet new demand in residential, commercial and, yes, even industrial spaces is so compelling that there is little to it but to do it.
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies will write its bill next. Tell your Senators to get constructive, literally. Tell them to support infrastructure, redevelopment, brownfield assessments and Superfund cleanups. We won’t cut our way into prosperity: we must make investments in the faster transit, cleaner water and more resilient built-environment we need to grow our way into greater prosperity.
Note: No federal funding is used for CCLR’s advocacy work, including this op-ed.