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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Build infrastructure, for the future

President Joe Biden signs the $1.2 trillion bipartisan

President Joe Biden signs the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law at the White House in Washington on Nov. 15. Credit: AP/Susan Walsh

No sooner had the federal infrastructure bill been signed, sealed and delivered, when a Republican food fight broke out. It featured angry intraparty castigations of the 13 House members and, to a lesser extent, the 19 senators who joined Democrats in voting for something both parties had sought for years to complete.

But that's merely transitory spectacle. The real drama comes next: the challenge of spending the money wisely.

That doesn’t mean just keeping a watch out for all those bridges to nowhere, though that’s always necessary. More importantly, it means spending wisely vis a vis climate change.

Spending on the wrong projects in the wrong places would be throwing good money after bad. Building new infrastructure in places that are doomed, or continuing to shore up infrastructure that we know will be destroyed again, would be foolish. Yes, there's a lot of money in the $1.2 trillion package but it's not endless.

We've seen enough catastrophes — from floods to fires, droughts to windstorms — to understand that not everyone and everything can remain where they have been. There will be climate migrations in this country, like the ones already taking place in other corners of the world, with refugees from parts of the Middle East and Africa heading toward Europe and others from Central America trying to reach the United States.

Some of these domestic relocations will be larger in scale than others — think New Orleans and South Florida, versus Dune Road and Fire Island and parts of Mastic Beach and Montauk. Whatever their size, none of these places will be able to stem the inevitable tide. Our insufficient response to our warming climate pretty much guarantees that.

New Orleans is a prime example. Its electric infrastructure was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, and again in 2020 by Hurricane Laura. The question is when, not if, it happens again. Plus, its population is declining and the city itself is sinking — more than half is below sea level, and that's the sea level of today, never mind in 20 or 50 years. New Orleans will be consumed eventually.

Does it really make sense to pour dollars into the Sisyphean task of saving NOLA when we could improve the roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure where people already are flocking — like Salt Lake City and Denver, Indianapolis and Nashville, Atlanta and Charlotte?

Money meant to ensure the stability of stable places like most of Long Island also would be well-spent. But let's do so with an eye to the future, not the present. Repaving the Long Island Expressway is terrific, but it's just another paving project unless we take advantage of this windfall and finally act to get more trucks off the roads so we don't have to repave again in a few years.

Why would we want to pick projects that incentivize people to move into heavily wooded areas prone to forest fires, or regions where water supplies already are scarce, or coasts already being battered by storms? Let's not make it more attractive to build where no one has built before, on Long Island or anywhere, by extending roads, pipes and wires into undisturbed land. Experience has shown us that natural spaces are our allies in mitigating climate change — and our palaces for rest, relaxation and pleasure. There are plenty of places we can repurpose and rebuild to accommodate populations on the move.

The infrastructure package is a wonderful opportunity. But we need to build for the country we will be, not the country we are now.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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