Guest Commentary: Infrastructure investments build Delaware’s foundations

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Ryan Flickinger is the president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Delaware.

The bipartisan infrastructure act’s passage last November was a welcome reminder that constructive compromise is still possible, even in this hyperpolarized political climate. Now, Delaware’s implementation of these historic public investments in our highways, bridges, water, electric and broadband systems offers a further chance to build public confidence in our capacity to govern effectively.

Delaware’s D grade on our most recent infrastructure report card shows the scale of the challenge ahead of us. But we can make immense progress — while being good stewards of taxpayers’ money — by embracing a few commonsense principles: avoiding waste and duplication, learning from past mistakes, cutting red tape and demanding accountability and transparency.

In the case of digital infrastructure, for example, Delaware’s investments stem from the Broadband Strategic Plan state leaders developed early in the COVID-19 pandemic to understand internet availability and digital equity gaps. That analysis confirmed that 98% of Delaware is already wired with world-class broadband — but identified at least 11,600 homes still awaiting a digital onramp.

Gov. Carney announced $56 million in grants in March to extend existing networks to those unserved households, using federal infrastructure act and American Rescue Plan funds. By carefully targeting public funding to areas where it’s actually needed — and partnering with proven, expert network builders already serving adjacent areas — we’ll avoid the delays, wasteful redundancy and deployment failures that marred earlier federal broadband programs in other states.

Even as we build out broadband infrastructure to these unconnected homes, our strategic plan reminds us that a quarter of Delaware’s population does not subscribe, even where internet service is already available. To close this adoption gap, we need to get more eligible families enrolled in the new Affordable Connectivity Program, which makes home internet service essentially free for eligible low-income households.

The infrastructure act’s digital inclusion initiatives give us a road map and resources for reaching this goal: funding libraries and community centers to launch digital skills training programs; providing low-cost devices to families in need; and staffing up an outreach campaign to help underconnected populations (including seniors, low-income families and communities of color) get online.

A similar approach — setting clear priorities, forging public-private partnerships and considering the needs of all communities in funding decisions — should also guide Delaware’s investments across the infrastructure act’s dozens of other funding programs, from highways and bridges to transit and water systems.

As state leaders have acknowledged, the goal isn’t just to identify shovel-ready projects but shovel-worthy projects. This influx of funding is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle big, bold ideas above and beyond the scope of typical year-to-year government budgets.

For example, many communities in Delaware — particularly in more rural Downstate areas — have a long-term need to replace aging water wells and septic systems with modern, clean drinking-water lines and wastewater systems. Delaware’s creation last year of a Clean Water Trust fund gave us a head start on the planning for this critical work — and now, the infrastructure act’s $315 million influx of clean-water funding over the next five years can dramatically accelerate this timeline.

Similarly, funding for climate-change preparedness will equip the Delaware Department of Transportation’s new Division of Transportation Resilience and Sustainability to prioritize urgent projects to shore up Delaware’s low-lying coastal infrastructure. And in parallel, generational investments in electric vehicle-charging infrastructure and public transit will dramatically accelerate efforts to reduce transportation emissions statewide.

With effective planning, smart collaboration with the private sector, and full transparency, these efforts will help lay the foundations for decades of broadly shared economic growth and job creation here in Delaware. And in the process, they’ll remind taxpayers that, even in an area of deepening political divisions and mistrust, state and local leaders across Delaware can still come together across party lines and govern effectively.

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