Mass government spending and social distancing nearly everywhere is a response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Perhaps we, like Winston Churchill, writing during World War II, might find a silver lining.
There is a sense of national unity or purpose, an outpouring of selfless action by medical professionals, and a renewed sense of national urgency to “Wash your damn hands!” What is intriguing to me is the number of individuals who — if they are still working — are suddenly shifted to a work from home situation and the follow-on effects that this has had.
While not all the “dolphins returning to the canals of Venice videos” are real (sorry!), the reduction of air pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in China are observable and documented. European cities are seeing similar reductions in GHG emissions and air pollution. A similar impact may soon be seen in the United States as “shelter in place” directives, which cut driving and factory production, take hold across the nation. The economic slowdown from the spread of COVID-19 could lead to a 9 percent reduction of emissions from the sector that is the largest GHG generator across the nation.
The transportation sector is the largest source of GHG emissions nationwide, and nearly one-third of all miles driven are for commuting purposes. While only 5 percent of Americans regularly work from home today, the Bureau of Labor believes that nearly one-third of Americans could do so. Winston Churchill might ask: How can this be made sustainable?
From recent personal experience, working from home, especially if your partner also is now working from home, requires very few things — a comfy chair, a tub of salted pretzels, and high-speed internet. I am fortunate that I live in an area with access to broadband, but many Iowans find broadband access prohibitively expensive or lack access at any price. My own family members who live in rural areas of Iowa have experienced broadband access problems.
This disparity is well known to Governor Kim Reynolds’ office, which has encouraged the growth of broadband throughout the state through a grants program. Even with this support, much of Iowa remains in a broadband desert, without access to the high-speed internet that allows for teleworking options for Iowans. The blue-shaded areas in the map below indicate areas lacking 25-megabit-per second download speed and 3-megabit upload speed, known as 25/3 broadband, in June 2018.
Similarly lacking in quality are Iowa roads. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives Iowa an overall grade of “C,” with an even lower grade of D+ and D for our bridges and dams. This is also not a new phenomenon, and the old joke of the Midwest having two sessions, winter and construction, points to the constant state of improvements we often find.
With these poor infrastructure grades in mind, how do we make the crisis of COVID-19 not go to waste? The federal government is passing legislation and considering more policy to provide needed financial support for workers, businesses, and the states.
While funds must first go to supporting those who have lost their jobs and for healthcare, infrastructure programs are also a way to quickly inject money into local economies once the crisis has subsided. We can even ensure some workers stay employed as we increase infrastructure construction during these economic lean times.
How? We can super-charge telecommunications investments by the state, either directly or via low-interest loans and grants to existing telecommunication firms. We can use the available public right-of-way that exists on local and state roads to lay fiber for broadband communication capacity across the state while also jump-starting road and bridge repair projects.
When telecom companies are given loans or grants, they should come with price caps to ensure that broadband service extensions are actually used by the rural public. Roads should be rebuilt with an eye less toward peak commuting travel, but more realistic travel demands in a world with expanded telecommuting and reduced motorist traffic.
In short, Iowans should take this opportunity to build a stronger, more resilient state that is forward facing and not just rebuilding what came before. And, they should ensure that fair and prevailing wages are paid for all construction contracts.
This time is one full of heartbreak for families directly affected by COVID-19 and anxiety for those wondering if and when their own family will fall ill. Industries are struggling and the economy may be grinding to a halt by the swift application of painful, but necessary, distancing efforts.
But within these trying times is an opportunity to respond with the future in mind. Like Churchill said, we should not let this crisis go to waste.