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Northeast Ohio Experts Hope Biden's Infrastructure Plan Brings Changes

[Nick Castele / ideastream]
The Cleveland skyline.

Updated: 4:55 p.m., Friday, April 2, 2021

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan includes funding for a wide range of initiatives, including digital access, clean energy and replacing lead pipes that Northeast Ohio advocacy groups say could provide unprecedented support for their efforts.

The proposal includes $100 billion to expand high-speed broadband nationally and, if passed, would create resources to make digital access and personal hardware, like laptops, more affordable. These are issues local advocacy groups have been trying to address for years, said Connect Your Community Cleveland Director Bill Callahan.

“Those are things we’ve been advocating for a long time, and that’s a whole new wrinkle on national broadband policy,” Callahan said. “It’s really the first time that an administration has shown an understanding of those needs.”

Current market rates for internet access is more than many low-income families can afford, Callahan said. There’s also a need for training and education, he said, so people know how to use the resources once they’re available.

“The reasons why 40 percent of households in Cleveland aren’t using the internet or don’t have the internet at home have nothing to do with infrastructure,” Callahan said. “They have to do with affordability and other barriers to adoption.”

The pandemic brought equity issues to the forefront of national conversations about internet access, Callahan said, and this proposal could bring resources for both urban and rural areas.

“When you have to get everybody online to deal with something, all of a sudden you have a very big problem in a lot of cities, including Cleveland,” Callahan said. “It isn’t something you can wish away.”

Cleveland is well-positioned to take advantage of grant funding or federal money that becomes available, Callahan said, thanks to nonprofits and advocacy groups already working in the area.

PCs for People, a national group that works to close the digital divide, is looking to the proposed infrastructure plan as an opportunity to expand their work in Cleveland and cities like it, said New Markets Director Andrea Lindsay.

“We know the need is really high in this area, so I think that we will be looking to do just everything we can to leverage those resources and put them to use to help the really high need here,” Lindsay said. “It’s really become evident how many households either don’t have that access at all, or the access that they have is not sufficient.”

More than one in five households in Cuyahoga County have no internet access, Lindsay said, and roughly one-third lack broadband access. The Biden administration’s infrastructure plan could provide much-needed support in addressing those gaps, Lindsay said.

“That is exactly what we’re trying to do for communities across Northeast Ohio, so any resources that we can dedicate to that work will just expand our impact tremendously,” Lindsay said.

Lead In The Crosshairs

Replacing the country’s lead pipes and service lines is also part of the infrastructure plan. If approved, it could help spur efforts to improve water quality in Cleveland households and reduce lead poisoning, said Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition Executive Director Yvonka Hall.

The coalition is working with the Cleveland Lead Safe Network to address the threat of lead. Current efforts are focused on lead paint in homes and contamination in surface soil or vacant lots, Hall said, but federal funding could jump-start the group’s efforts to evaluate water contamination.

“This would be an opportunity to ensure that people have pipes that are going to their houses that are safe and free from lead,” Hall said. “So I think this, for us and for our communities that have been disadvantaged for so long, can be a real game changer.”

The pandemic has led to less-frequent testing for children who might have been exposed to lead, Hall said, and an overall drop in lead testing for homes in the Cleveland area. But even if the infrastructure proposal passes, she said, advocates will still need to put pressure on state and local governments to ensure the money makes it to the communities where it is most needed, like Cleveland’s East Side.

“People who need the most help end up without it. And it’s because everything gets caught up in this system,” Hall said. “When it comes down, it never quite reaches the people who need it the most.”

Cleveland has a lot of older homes with pipes that haven’t been replaced, Hall said. There’s also a need to examine lead safety in school buildings, she said. But Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has shown interest in addressing lead exposure through proposals like the Lead Free Kids Act, she said, and now the federal proposal could provide additional support.

“This is like, the perfect storm, that everything that we have been talking about for years finally has someone willing to take on those issues. And that infrastructure piece is so important,” Hall said. “It’s a different thing to say what you want to do, than to say what you can do because you now have the dollars to make it happen.”

But replacing lead pipes in public infrastructure won’t completely eliminate the threat of lead poisoning. Cleveland has seen a larger impact from lead dust and paint within the home, said Environmental Health Watch Executive Director Kim Foreman. Her agency’s efforts have focused on the individual home as the root of the issue, she said, rather than public infrastructure.

“In general, our water is pretty clean, and our children are being poisoned by lead dust in the homes,” Foreman said. “Our aim and advocacy is around preventing poisoning by focusing on the house, because the home is the solution to the problem.”

Resources that would allow families and homeowners to replace their pipes or to improve affordable housing options would go a long way toward addressing the need, Foreman said.

“We need some resources to really have that conversation,” she said. “We work with a lot of low-income residents, tenants and householders, and policy needs to be coupled with resources.”

Infrastructure And The Environment

Biden’s infrastructure proposal also would cover a wide swath of environmental efforts, including $100 billion for improving power lines and shifting to clean, renewable energy.

Ohio has done well in retiring coal as an energy source, said the Sierra Club’s Neil Waggoner. Waggoner is senior campaign representative for the agency’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Ohio.

Although the state has moved away from coal, he said, not enough new energy sources have been brought in to replace it. Biden’s investment plan could help, he said, particularly through options like additional tax credits for supporting clean energy.

“This trend that we already see in the state with solar development, that’s only going to continue,” Waggoner said. “We’re going to see more and more of that announced for the state, and that’s going to really help support this transition from dirty coal to clean, renewable energy.”

The investment plan does not fully flesh out where the money would go, Waggoner said, but the Sierra Club hopes to see specific initiatives aimed at helping former coal plant workers and communities move forward after coal plants are retired.

“Targeted investments there to support the workers that are impacted there, as well as targeted investment to support these communities overall so they can enter their next generation and really thrive and succeed,” Waggoner said. “I think that’s really important.”

The proposal also should include resources for poorer and marginalized communities, Waggoner said, which tend to be at higher risk for feeling the impact of climate change and yet have fewer resources for addressing it.

“Getting investments there now to make sure those communities are prepared for the impacts of climate change is really important and we want to see a lot of that in this plan,” Waggoner said. “It’s going to help getting new revenue sources for the schools, for the counties, for essential services, things like that, which, definitely very critical for communities.”

But with Ohio’s market already trending toward cleaner energy like natural gas, some argue the president’s infrastructure proposal and subsidies for renewable energy are an overreach. The proposal broadens the umbrella of public infrastructure, said Buckeye Institute Vice President of Policy Rea Hederman Jr., and creates opportunities for acting against the public interest.

“In essence, you’re taking some of the things that are working well, and you’re making them more expensive,” Hederman said. “When you start directing a lot of government subsidies, a lot of private companies like this, it makes it harder to have good, efficient and honest government.”

But the infrastructure plan would allow the government to prioritize certain energy production companies regardless of market support, he said.

“It’s important that we continue to let those innovations drive energy production in Ohio, instead of trying to single out certain companies and say, ‘This company should get a lot of government money because we think they can utilize that wisely,’” Hederman said.

Whether the plan will make a difference in Ohio or get broad support here also depends on what restrictions are put in place to access the funding if it’s allocated, Hederman said.

“We’re still waiting to figure out what type of restrictions the administration will put on states that could constrain the way Ohio could use that money,” he said.

Ohio is a heavy energy consumer due to its large manufacturing sector, Hederman said. Letting the statewide energy market operate without subsidies will be more effective in maintaining competition, he said.

“I think that makes a big difference compared to propping up failing nuclear energy plants, for example, or subsidizing other energy sources that simply aren’t as efficient, or are more expensive for households,” Hederman said.