Infrastructure News

Commentary: Infrastructure projects can’t leave our neighbors disconnected | Commentary


North Charleston is a place where we listen to our neighbors, and our experience with the I-26 corridor improvement project made it clear just how important it is for states and the federal government to create a better way to develop infrastructure projects that take into account the experiences of the communities most impacted by them.

While a highway improvement can be important, thousands of North Charleston residents made their voices heard about how options under consideration would “solve” the city’s congestion problem at the expense of some and impact the quality of life of other neighborhoods.

We’re going to be doing a lot of rebuilding across the country if Congress passes an infrastructure package. There’s no doubt about the needs. Our cities and towns face significant and troubling gaps in funding for infrastructure projects, from road repairs and sewer lines to broadband. But even more troubling is when our final decisions fail to try to lessen the troubles we place on some in our community.

The I-26 project is a key example of not following through on the promises to the community to build the noise walls they were promised as the highway literally expanded into their backyards. How we treat people as we make infrastructure investments matters, and this isn’t just a one-time problem; there’s a clear history of it across the United States.

In the 1960s, many of the original U.S. highways were often put through communities despite objections, and today’s projects follow similar processes and are not always much kinder to communities. We must do better in building back our infrastructure and not just leave people to deal with the consequences.

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Unfortunately, COVID-19 put a spotlight on just how much we’ve left parts of our community without access to basic infrastructure such as broadband internet service. As the pandemic forced students into virtual classrooms from home, North Charleston found that even neighborhoods in the middle of our city like Midland Park-Stall Road didn’t have reliable internet to do their school work, and we had to deploy school buses with hotspots to make sure they didn’t fall behind.

Our city is not alone in this. One analysis found that 1 in 3 black, Latino and American Indian-Alaska Native students did not have high-speed internet access at home and were more likely than white peers to be disconnected from online learning. Gaps in broadband infrastructure and internet affordability meant that nearly 17 million students did not have the access they needed to learn from home. We can address these widespread and persistent disparities related to internet access by making broadband investments with our federal and private partners so we don’t have to leave our neighbors disconnected.

As we work with Congress to ask for the infrastructure partnership we need, we owe it to our residents to do better, and to make sure “build back better” is actually better for every neighborhood. When we rebuild, we must respect the communities the infrastructure is supposed to serve and make sure it’s not leaving so many disconnected and sidelined.

North Charleston is ready to partner with Congress and build transportation and broadband that works for all our residents if congressional leaders can negotiate a bipartisan infrastructure package. Both local and national leaders owe it to our neighbors and the community as a whole to find new and innovative ways to invest in infrastructure that works for everyone.

Rhonda Jerome is a member of North Charleston City Council.


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