Raleigh News & Observer Mar. 5, 2005

Raleigh News & Observer: Build the environment, too

By Todd BenDor and Martin Doyle
CHAPEL HILL - The $787 billion federal stimulus package will help North Carolina improve its infrastructure and create jobs. And by putting the environment front and center as we build the roads, bridges and waterworks that we need, we can put even more people to work.
North Carolina needs money for its infrastructure. The first glimpses of our 2009 infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) are awful. Our roads get a D and our drinking water systems a C+. Even our dams receive a D, with some 22 percent of them labeled high hazard, i.e., in poor condition and located upstream of residential or commercial areas.
Using the stimulus package to improve roads, repair bridges and reinforce levees is an absolute necessity. Better infrastructure doesn't just prevent disaster. According to White House estimates, 105,000 jobs will be created here through the stimulus package. Many of these jobs will come from new investments in public infrastructure.
While attention is rightfully focused on the economic impact of this spending, we must not neglect its effect on the environment. Infrastructure construction of this scale could have a staggering impact. This is the inevitable side effect of road, bridge and dam construction in a humid, coastal state.
Every year, thousands of publicly and privately financed projects degrade our state's water resources. These are often important projects that provide jobs and increase economic productivity. Yet they all come with environmental price tags. Damage to naturally functioning streams and wetlands creates a greater risk of flooding in cities and towns, decreased water quality and the continued loss of biodiversity.
Our research suggests that the state Department of Transportation is responsible for 30 percent to 50 percent of the negative impacts on streams and wetlands in the state. This figure will increase dramatically as construction begins using stimulus money. Many of these environmental problems will crop up in the future, while we worry about roads and jobs today.
The answer is for the state to aggressively link environmental restoration with the proposed infrastructure building as part of the stimulus package.
We need to be building and restoring ecosystems hand-in-hand with the construction activities that destroy or degrade them. This will create additional jobs, comply with existing law and ensure that the negative consequences of construction are minimized.
Luckily, we have state agencies and private entrepreneurs to do this. Since 1996, North Carolina has made enormous efforts to offset wetland and stream damage. The state does this through the Ecosystem Enhancement Program, a part of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. North Carolina is also home to many private, entrepreneurial environmental restoration companies. They are literally in the business of restoring our environment: they profit from fixing damaged streams and wetlands across the state.
If ever there were jobs that qualified as "green collar," these are the companies and agencies that generate them. Our research estimates that, to date, they have restored over 350 miles of stream and 25,000 acres of wetland. These are permanent contributions to the environment.
One of the primary arguments for spending on infrastructure is that it leaves a lasting impact. Environmental restoration does the same thing. Restored wetlands, streams and coastal areas are valuable now. But, they will be even more valuable in 100 years, when newly constructed bridges and roads are a distant memory.
We must ensure that environmental restoration happens in advance of the infrastructure expansion. We know that construction will happen faster than restoration. But research has shown that restoration works only when funds are devoted to restoration projects before construction.
The critical question is whether the Ecosystem Enhancement Program and private firms can keep up with all the new construction expected.
There will immense pressure to begin construction work rapidly. Yet the long-term environmental consequences of hasty actions could take decades or centuries to undo. The Army Corps of Engineers, along with the General Assembly and the Perdue administration, must ensure that the environmental restoration industry and the ecosystem program are put to work immediately and proactively. Preserving and restoring natural resources must be a priority.
Todd BenDor is an assistant professor of city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill and a 2009 GSK Faculty Fellow at N.C. State University's Institute for Emerging Issues. Martin Doyle is an associate professor in the Geography Department and Institute of the Environment at UNC-Chapel Hill.