How to Build a Better Infrastructure Plan

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Economists and lawmakers are batting around increasingly large figures for the Obama admin’s upcoming stimulus package — 300 billion dollars, 500 billion, a trillion? Whatever the final sum, a big cut will get plowed into transpo projects. The question is whether all that money will perpetuate an outdated system or lead toward a future where cars and gas aren’t seen as basic necessities for most Americans.

This piece
from William Gale and Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution maps out
some smart principles for the people who’ll be making those decisions.
Stop spreading transpo funds around the country "like peanut butter,"
they tell the feds, and target places with the biggest concentrations
of people…

Lost in a morass of pork and politics, federal infrastructure policy
today is an unaccountable free-for-all. Though there is little economic
justification for making broad improvements in all places, that is
exactly how the American transportation structure operates. The 6,373
earmarked projects in the latest federal transportation authorization
illustrate the problem. It’s not just the distaste for earmarks but the
politically driven scattershot approach. The result is that only half
of the projects go to places that matter most to the American economy
and would benefit most from the investments: the 100 largest
metropolitan areas, where 75 percent of GDP is produced.

Katz, you may recall, is one of the leading candidates to head up the new Office of Urban Policy
in the Obama White House. So hopefully we’ll get to see whether this
idea can survive the Senate, where Alaska wields the same number of
votes as New York. 

In terms of modal preference, Katz and
Gale make no pronouncements, but the goals they describe don’t seem all
that compatible with 18-lane elevated highways:

The focus
should be on investing in infrastructure that supports the
competitiveness and environmental sustainability of the nation instead
of funding individual states or spending on singular needs.

To
score this, the nation needs a strong, deliberate and strategic federal
government to do what is necessary to keep America competitive. What
would that mean?

It means setting strict criteria for the
billions of infrastructure dollars that are spent as part of the
stimulus. Such criteria should include a real assessment of economic
benefits and costs that consider environmental, energy, and social
impacts. We should only invest those dollars where the nation has
assurances of high returns.

It means holding the grantees — the
states and metropolitan planning organizations — accountable through
ongoing audits to ensure public dollars are being spent as efficiently
and effectively as possible. The direct loss of future federal funds
should be a genuine consequence for failing to meet basic
accountability standards.

It means making focused, targeted
investments in those gateways and corridors that are the critical nodes
of international trade and inter-metropolitan commerce, rather than
spreading infrastructure funding around the country like peanut butter.
An independent national infrastructure bank should be established to
define and finance those projects of substantial regional and national
significance now and in the future.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • ‘setting strict criteria … a real assessment of economic benefits and costs that consider environmental, energy, and social impacts”. That sounds great but like any analysis how you measure these things and prioritize isn’t always all that easy. This is a political process and to make it less so means taking on some sacred cows. Not impossible but we should not fool ourselves about how rough this fight will be. I think the idea of targting the states and metropolitan planning organizations for accountability is an excellent idea – far too often they are overly compliant by fudging the numbers to make sure the project lists match the local politicians’ wish lists…

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