Washington, DC, July 15, 2021 – The SmarterSafer Coalition released the following letter on its priorities for Congress in relation to infrastructure legislation.
To The Honorable:
Maria Cantwell, Chairwoman U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce
Joe Manchin, Chairman U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Tom Carper, Chairman U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Sherrod Brown, Chairman U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Roger Wicker, Ranking Member U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
John Barrasso, Ranking Member U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Shelley Moore, Capito Ranking Member U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Patrick Toomey, Ranking Member U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs
The SmarterSafer Coalition (SmarterSafer) is a diverse coalition of conservation and environmental groups, taxpayer-focused organizations, insurance and reinsurance interests, and housing advocates. As Congress turns its attention to comprehensive infrastructure legislation, SmarterSafer writes to express our priorities on the matter. SmarterSafer remains united in our support for fiscally sound and environmentally responsible approaches to natural catastrophes and infrastructure policies. We applaud your efforts in improving the nation’s infrastructure and encourage you and your colleagues to address, through robust coordination, the nation’s failing infrastructure in a manner that balances environmental protection and better stewardship of taxpayer dollars.
The Need for Climate Research in Infrastructure Investment
We encourage you to enhance and strengthen the nation’s capacity to conduct infrastructure related research, especially as it pertains to climate risk, ocean science, disaster resilient engineering, and green infrastructure. It is essential that we close the gap between the research needed on climate impacts and the growing need to apply that knowledge to make the nation more prepared and resilient. Congress must consider new investments in infrastructure design, siting, and engineering that will allow the nation to track, monitor, prepare, and respond to changing climate and its related disasters.
It is imperative that the new findings from climate-research, such as new weather patterns and changing weather systems, are matched with advanced pre-disaster mitigation plans. Outdated strategies have caused the federal government to spend billions of dollars reacting to disasters. Without change, this number is only expected to increase. Mitigation, however, is a short-term cost with long term gains as every $1 invested in mitigation is estimated to save $6 on postdisaster spending1 . These investments are particularly appropriate as the country anticipates another year of devastating natural disasters. SmarterSafer supports elements of H.R. 2, the Moving Forward Act, as they relate to greater funding for pre-disaster flood mitigation efforts, investments in natural infrastructure, and deployment of climate-resilient technologies. Lastly, we support the implementation of resilience programs at FEMA and HUD, including FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program, to create sustainable jobs and bolster community resilience by investing in pre-disaster mitigation, especially in natural infrastructure solutions such as floodplain restoration.
Natural and Climate Resilient Infrastructure
Natural and nature-based solutions provide significant and measurable risk-reduction benefits to communities. NOAA estimates that U.S. coastal wetlands alone provide $23.2 billion in storm protection each year. During Hurricane Sandy, wetlands reduced damages by more than 22 percent in more than half of the areas directly affected by the storm. On inland waterways, researchers have found that wetlands provide $237 billion a year in benefits for flood mitigation and groundwater recharges2 . By investing in natural restoration and resilience projects as part of any stimulus package, these natural features will provide important wildlife habitats, assist in creating outdoor recreational opportunities, and help restore tourism activity. Investments into restoration and resilience projects will also help confront the climate crisis by naturally sequestering more carbon and bolstering community resilience to wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding, while advancing environmental justice by removing pollution from our air, water, and soils. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on natural infrastructure and the surplus of benefits available when used in tandem with gray infrastructure.
To support resilience-building, nature-based investments in an infrastructure package, we urge you to direct supplemental funding towards NOAA habitat and resiliency grants to create jobs restoring wetlands, dunes, mangroves, and other living shorelines. These efforts will help reduce flood and erosion risks for coastal communities. Supplemental funding should also be used to implement existing regional ecological restoration plans and authorized projects to support largescale restoration of natural systems that provide protections against sea level rise and disaster events. Additionally, we support the use of U.S. Forest Service accounts that bolster resilience to wildfires, including small diameter fuels, vegetation and watershed management, wildland fire preparedness, and wildlife and fisheries management. Lastly, funds should also be allocated to accelerate flood mapping to inform strategic infrastructure investments and development decisions.
Infrastructure in America’s Floodplains
America’s public infrastructure remains threatened by more frequent and severe flooding. While recent progress has been made, Congress should act to require government-funded agencies involved in floodplain construction to follow certain mitigation strategies to ensure that funds are used for projects that can withstand disasters. Along those lines, SmarterSafer supports the Build for Future Disasters Act introduced in the 117th Congress by Reps. Scott Peters (D-CA) and Andy Barr (R-KY) that would limit new construction inside federally designated floodplains, the Flood Resiliency and Taxpayer Savings Act introduced by Rep. David Price (D-NC) that safeguards taxpayer resources and strengthens the nation’s resilience against severe storms and flooding, and the Flood Risk Management Act introduced by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), which echoes President Biden’s recent executive order of taking a “government-wide approach to the climate crisis” by nationally codifying a federal flood protection standard to require federally funded infrastructure projects to adequately account for flood risks.
Finally, Congress should also consider the racial inequities inherent in federal disaster assistance and hazard mitigation assistance programs that reflect and perpetuate discriminatory practices and historic redlining. Low-income and minority homeowners and communities, who have not traditionally received the same level of benefits from federal buyout programs as other segments of the population, should be given priority and additional assistance as a first step to address the history of placing low-income and minority housing in areas of higher risk. Further, there should be a focus on ensuring minority communities are not excluded from buyout programs and on raising awareness in these communities that these programs are available for them to use.
The United States has an infrastructure funding gap of more than 2 trillion. Policymakers at all levels of government must find ways to stretch every dollar. But it is also important to realize the benefits of public-private partnerships and risk-transfer opportunities. Facilitating and strengthening public-private partnerships will give programs increased access to better technology and more capital to increase efficiency to better serve the individuals they intend to help. The private sector, particularly the insurance industry, is eager to take on additional risk associated with natural disasters. Certain federal programs and agencies, including the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Export-Import Bank, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, already employ risk transfer strategies, proving they can be successful. We believe more can be done in the climate space. By leveraging private financing, insurance, and reinsurance availability, policymakers can shift some of the financial burdens associated with climate change from the government’s balance sheet to willing private sector participants to improve the implementation of the entire program.
It is not enough to build in environmentally sound areas, we must keep durability and longevity in mind. Federal funds—whether provided through disaster assistance, Community Development Block Grants, or other programs—should be directed to outcome-driven projects that strengthen communities and reduce long-term risk. Federal infrastructure investments must require stronger minimum design standards and incorporate forecasts of future conditions to create a stronger infrastructure stock that can withstand an uncertain future. High-quality information and data are necessary to guide these efforts. SmarterSafer supports bipartisan legislation such as the Built to Last Act, introduced in the 116th and 117th Congress by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA), that would ensure standards-developing organizations that issue building codes have access to forward-looking meteorological information, including data on wildfires and other environmental trends. It is only by following this path that the U.S. will continue to see tangible improvements in its infrastructure.
Thoughtful infrastructure spending can and should simultaneously create and protect economic growth, security for communities, and long-term savings for taxpayers. As the economy begins to recover and expand in the post-COVID-19 era, we hope that you will continue to focus your time and effort on these topics and appreciate your consideration of the aforementioned suggestions that promote fiscally and environmentally responsible infrastructure. We also hope that, with your focus and efforts, we will continue to see considerable results. Our coalition stands ready to be a resource to you and your colleagues as legislation that forwards your infrastructure platform takes shape.