The United States boasts one of the greatest highway systems and the safest commercial air network in the world. However, without improvement to vital systems, the prosperity of America is in danger. The American Society of Civil Engineers rated the condition of US infrastructure at a C-, slightly up from a D+ in 2019.
Although infrastructure is not always seen as a pressing issue, last month’s crisis in Texas revealed the danger in leaving its shortfalls unaddressed. Millions of residents went without power or water for five days, and nearly 60 Texans died due to the electric grid’s failure. The snowstorm didn’t cause new problems to the state’s electrical grid; it just exposed existing ones. The failures in Texas forced the country to come face-to-face with its deteriorating infrastructure. Not only does infrastructure impact the lives of millions, but it can also be politically beneficial to run on a platform which calls to improve this vital network. Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan, ran on “fix the damn roads” in 2018 and won. Her campaign slogan proved effective enough to be elected Democratic governor of a state where every other government office is majority Republican. Infrastructure is not often a “hot topic” in politics; however, recent events have demonstrated its importance and suggests that it has a remarkable ability to unite constituents and contribute to political campaigns.
Texas’s inability to provide essential services for its residents during Feburary’s winter storms laid bare the state’s infrastructural weaknesses. While Texas prides itself on a free market approach to electricity generation, a lack of regulations was widely seen as the cause of the grid’s failure in February. Texas is the only state in the country that operates its own grid, and therefore does not have to comply with federal regulations. Electric utilities aren’t required to produce enough power to get through a crisis like those in other states that are federally regulated. Instead, utility companies are incentivized only to raise generation when there is a dwindling power supply that increases prices. Hence, it is a system that works for companies instead of consumers. During the snowstorms, the average price per megawatt hour increased $35 until it reached a maximum of $9,000. This increase in price benefits the managers of Texas’s grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (EROCT). The original intent of a decentralized system was assurance that high prices would guarantee reliability and proper power plant maintenance. However, this goal has not been fulfilled. EROCT has no incentives to update the grid due to the potential for windfall profits as a result of increased electricity prices.
When similar weather conditions pushed Texas’s grid to the brink of failure in 2011 and 2014, federal reports were released examining the problem and detailing recommendations to prevent exactly what happened in February. The reports by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation concluded that Texas’s grid had simply not been prepared for the cold weather. They noted that the lack of extra insulation, windbreaks and heaters contributed to the grid’s failures. In addition, they made multiple recommendations such as implementing regular reviews of sites to make sure they are properly prepared for winter, ensuring that fuel is protected from the effect of cold weather, and many others. Nothing was done. When cold weather struck again in 2021, Texans watched helplessly as wind turbines and natural gas wells froze.
Although legislation has been proposed since the severe weather in 2011, few pieces have been passed. The current mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, noted that it’s time to “dust off [his] bill” which would have required the Public Utilities Commission to ensure that EROCT reserved enough power to prevent blackouts like February’s. Turner’s proposed legislation was never passed because it never got a hearing. Not only would such legislation have prevented February’s blackout, it could also have given a boost to Texan politicians.
This lack of legislation is puzzling, as infrastructure is widely popular among Americans. A poll from The American Petroleum Institute found that 83% of Texans “support congressional action to invest in energy infrastructure to increase the production and distribution of domestic energy.” Nationally, infrastructure polls at a similar percentage, as a Gallup poll in 2016 found that 75% respondents endorsed the idea of spending more to “improve infrastructure, including roads, buildings, and waterways.” Similarly, when Americans were asked in 2017 how important it was that Trump keeps each of his 12 policy promises, infrastructure was at the top of the list. America’s drastic division couldn’t penetrate it’s unity on infrastructure.
Politicians gauging the political benefits of infrastructure spending need look no further than Gretchen Whitmer. In 2018, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer was elected governor of Michigan, a state whose legislature is controlled by Republicans. She was able to win the most powerful office in the state by pushing for infrastructure improvements, running on the promise of “fix the damn roads.” In September of 2020, Whitmer followed through and closed the deal on the first sale of bonds to fix the roads. She is fulfilling her biggest campaign promise and doing so with unanimous support from the Michigan State Transportation Commission and against Republican leaders’ objections.
Whitmer’s ability to fulfill a campaign promise that was unifying rather than divisive demonstrates the political power of infrastructure. In addition, her efforts have placed her in a good position to be elected in 2022 regardless of her state’s Republican majority. She currently has $3.5 million in the bank for her reelection campaign and recent polls about her management of the pandemic have 63.3% of Michigan voters agreeing with her approach, favorable numbers for the Governor.
Texas’s grid failure has shown that politicians need to pay attention to the country’s deteriorating system. Meanwhile, polls and elections continue to demonstrate the ability this issue has to unite voters. The bipartisan support for infrastructure improvement is rare and should be capitalized upon. By focusing on fixing America’s infrastructure, the Government can impact hundreds of lives. In addition, politics can become more uniting than divisive. Biden’s administration is gearing up to propose major infrastructure legislation and hopes it will garner public support. However, Democrats and Republicans alike should see the benefits of this legislation, which are obvious thanks to Whitmer and polling data. Infrastructure is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. An incident like the one in Texas cannot be repeated.
Image: Original Illustration by Jinghong Chen