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Opinion | John E. Fernández

Think big, Mr. President, for a rebuilt US — and let others think with you

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Dear Mr. President,

Yes, we should build some walls, but here’s an idea: Why stop there?

With an open government we could also build bridges, tunnels, airports — and yes, also tremendous walls.

That itch to build and rebuild stuff that’s falling apart? That’s a good itch — for local economies, job creation, and protection from emerging threats such as climate change. In fact, Mr. President, you said it yourself at your inauguration, “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

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Of course, it will cost billions and billions of dollars. The US interstate highway system amounted to about $500 billion in today’s dollars, but any investment in infrastructure pays for itself many times over. Why? Because bridges and roads, pipes and wires — these are the conduits for goods and services and people. Also, infrastructure lasts a long time. So, any investment made today has decades, sometimes hundreds of years, to yield a return on investment.

Now, imagine a big bipartisan “new deal” that gets this started in 2019. You may know that the 2017 assessment of our infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers is pretty bad — a D- for transit, a D for drinking water, a D+ for energy, and a C+ for ports. No As, and just one B (for rail). You want big bipartisan deals? This is it.

And here’s the thing, Mr. President. The stuff we build can be second to none. It can be better than what we built after World War II and better than what the Chinese and Singaporeans have built in their own countries in the last few decades. And boy, have they built things. China now connects huge city regions with super-fast trains. Singapore has the most secure water system in the world, and maybe the best airport. But we can build better.

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Why? Because the United States is still the leader in new technologies of all kinds. We have some of the best engineers, scientists, designers, and planners, some of them recent immigrants, of course. We also have the most creative business people and the most active venture capital community in the world.

When we first built highways, bridges, and water systems, there weren’t any hackers pecking at keyboards trying to sabotage the power grid. We also didn’t have the climate risks we see today. Think about the flooding in Houston and the Carolinas, superstorms hitting the Gulf Coast, and heat waves and fires in Washington state and Oregon. Some well-placed walls could protect Malibu, Miami, and New York City as storms surge and sea levels rise.

These new risks require new tools, and Americans have always been good at new. New materials that mimic nature and work at nanoscale; state-of-the-art sensors and robots that monitor leaks in water pipes; new low-carbon energy systems, including molten salt nuclear reactors and the near-term prospect for fusion power — these are all in the works. Furthermore, major investments in AI research and application promise to secure this key technology for American innovation and security. This is all cool stuff, Mr. President, but you might ask, “Why not let companies take their hard-earned tax cuts to develop technologies, and leave government out of it?” You do know that the National Science Foundation supported Larry and Sergey when they were cooking up Google, right?

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And this is the other thing: We know that investment in research and in support for new science and technologies is like infrastructure. It pays for itself many, many times over.

So, let’s go ahead and build big, beautiful things, create jobs, and restore the infrastructure of our country. You will probably end up building a lot more than you ever wanted to, but not so much walls along the southern border, against our good Mexican friends and business partners. You will also probably want to admit a whole lot of immigrant labor to get this work done. In fact, we probably want to make sure the bridges to our third-largest goods trading partner are in great shape. For example, the border city of Laredo, Texas, alone accounts for more than $200 billion in trade annually and is the largest land port in the United States.

Maybe we can agree, Mr. President, that “we must think big and dream even bigger. . . . The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.” Your words again.

Now, how about some action.


John E. Fernández is director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative.