Visions for the Next Generation of American Infrastructure

Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, 2007 / AP Photo, Morry Gash via Wired

In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its infrastructure report card, the first in four years. After crunching the data, they gave the U.S. a D+, explained Tom Smith, executive director, ASCE, at the American Society of Landscape Architect (ASLA)’s mid-year board meeting. “We have a lot of infrastructure at the end of its useful life. And we have a $2 trillion infrastructure investment gap over the next decade.”

Given America’s infrastructure is nearly failing, how should we rebuild? And where do we find the money?

In a panel moderated by ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Smith argued “we can’t just rebuild our grandparent’s infrastructure. We can’t just add more lanes to the highways. We need to focus on land-use planning, sustainability, and resilience. Autonomous vehicles will also be huge.”

Patrick Phillips, Global CEO, Urban Land Institute (ULI), said compact transit-oriented development could “reduce the need for infrastructure.” He believes infrastructure in the future needs to be more smartly targeted to achieve economic development goals but also improve equity. A focus on inclusiveness can lead to new possibilities and a fairer future.

Rachel Minnery, senior director of sustainability policy at American Institute of Architects (AIA) wants to see new infrastructure investments help deal with climate challenges by improving our resilience. “We have a vast stock of existing buildings” that must be made more resilient. “We need a new era of visionary planning.”

“Parks and green infrastructure should be an investment priority,” said David Rouse, ASLA, research director at American Planning Association (APA), echoing APA’s official position on infrastructure. “Green infrastructure creates jobs. We can’t just recreate grey infrastructure.”

And Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs, ASLA, agreed, arguing that more investment is needed in “parks and national lands, which are also infrastructure.” National parks in particular are “overburdened,” said Smith, who noted that parks went down in the latest ASCE infrastructure report card. He added: “treating parks as infrastructure is an idea that resonates with people.”

Blackwell also made the case for increasing investments in “active transportation,” a term for infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike lanes, arguing that any major infrastructure investment must be comprehensive, and not just be about repairing highways and bridges.

So how to pay for the many trillions required for new infrastructure?

While states — even red ones — have raised gas taxes, the federal government hasn’t in decades and isn’t likely to in the future. President Trump has called for an increase in private investment in infrastructure through public-private partnerships (PPPs), but Somerville noted that PPPs usually privilege communities that can easily attract private investment. A private-sector led approach can then be expected to be leave poorer communities farther behind.

Phillips said there is “no silver bullet. We need a mix of private and public funds. Other countries are more effective at PPPs than us. Infrastructure can unlock opportunities in poorer neighborhoods. But, if poorly structured, a PPP doesn’t help.”

Minnery thinks the market will shift development and infrastructure investment patterns. Already the credit ratings of cities on coasts, which are most vulnerable to rising seas and storms, are taking a hit. As climate refugees increase in number and head inland, those cities will face pressure to increase development. “We have to think holistically as a nation about what this means.”

And, lastly, President Trump wants to speed up the process of building infrastructure. He is considering a new rule to requires states to start projects within 90 days of receiving federal funding. Is this possible?, Somerville asked.

Minnery said there’s often a delay at the state level, because of a lack of resources in planning departments. These departments have huge stacks of projects awaiting review. “Planning departments never recovered from cuts after the 2008 recession.” Rouse also noted that if the planned EPA cuts go through, “that stack of project reviews will get even higher.”

He said “successful infrastructure projects are rooted in local visions and strong regional planning.” To move projects forward quickly, communities must have planning infrastructure in place.

Blackwell wondered if more infrastructure project review responsibilities could be devolved to states. Through the FAST Act, federal lawmakers enabled California, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Utah to conduct their own National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews on behalf of the federal government. The Hill reports that Ohio saved $4.6 million in the first three months of doing the reviews itself.

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