Debate: How to Spend $2 Trillion on Infrastructure

Jackson Street Reconstruction, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

In a dark conference room in the heart of Washington, D.C., amidst the clink of glasses and silverware, an interdisciplinary panel of experts discussed the future of infrastructure policy in America.

“At the beginning of the week, I was optimistic,” said Roxanne Blackwell, Esq., Hon. ASLA, federal affairs director at the American Society of Landscape Architecture (ASLA). “For the first time the Democratic leadership went up to the White House to talk about infrastructure investment. Everyone comes out smiling, everyone using terms like ‘bigger,’ ‘bolder.’ Then by Wednesday or Thursday, we were just back to politics as usual.”

The panel, moderated by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO and executive vice president of ASLA, was convened the day after landscape architects from all across the country descended on Capitol Hill for ASLA Advocacy Day 2019. Nearly 200 ASLA members attended 221 meetings with lawmakers and staff, urging them to steer federal dollars into much-needed infrastructure projects that promote resilience and sustainability.

Panelists from the American Planning Association (APA) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) expressed optimism for change, citing encouraging sign of progress in Congress. But Calvin Gladney, President and CEO of Smart Growth America, brought the conversation to a somber note.

“All of this optimism,” he sighed. “Let me take a more contrarian view.”

Gladney talked about what was wrong about the infrastructure conversation in Washington. “Right now, the conversation is about the number,” he said. “But the real conversation should be about what is the policy that underlies the number.”

“The number” Gladney is referring to is $2 trillion – the amount of infrastructure investment the U.S. needs, according to ASCE in their annual Infrastructure Report Card. ASCE assesses the current state of America’s roads, tunnels, ports, bridges, and other infrastructure, looks at current funding levels, and calculates the amount of investment needed to bring America’s infrastructure to an acceptable standard. Leaders in Congress and the White House have recently used that number as a benchmark for the amount of funding they’d like to see in a large infrastructure investment package that has yet to materialize.

But the number isn’t nearly as important as what lies behind it.

“If we’re going to make progress, we need to change the conversation,” said Thomas W. Smith III, secretary and executive director of ASCE. “Being car-centric is not going to solve the problems we have.”

When it comes to federal investment in sustainable projects, the availability of funding falls woefully short of demand. The Rails to Trails Conservancy found that nearly half of the projects that applied for federal funding through the Transportation Alternatives program in 2017 went unfunded. The program is meant to fund small-scale active transportation projects such as trails, pedestrian walks, and bike paths.

The Clean Water State Revolving Fund, meant to provide states and localities with money to upgrade and maintain water and stormwater management systems, has not been reauthorized in nearly thirty years. Out national park system has a $12 billion backlog of infrastructure projects, left undone due to lack of funds.

And those are just a few of the problems with fund availability for our current infrastructure. Panelists contend that if we want a new infrastructure bill to be successful, we cannot just look at the past — we must plan for the technologies of the future.

What we consider “infrastructure” also must change. “Broadband is infrastructure. Passenger rail is infrastructure,” said Gladney. “If we are gonna to do ‘new,’ let’s make it multi-modal. And let’s also expand what we consider infrastructure, so we’re building for the future.”

From electric cars to electric scooters and autonomous vehicles, technology is changing the face of infrastructure. Accommodating the people who use these technologies is an important part of infrastructure planning — and needs to be part of the conversation now.

“While technology changes at a rapid rate, investments in communities don’t,” said Kurt Christiansen, president of the American Planning Association (APA). “We need to start working new technology into our plans now. If we don’t, we’ll have more problems than we had before.”

Also lost in Washington’s obsession with numbers is the problem of equity. Research by the National Recreation and Parks Association found that people who live in low-income have lower access to parks and open spaces, which leads to a higher rate of negative health effects like obesity. These populations are often overlooked when infrastructure investments are planned.

“We have to make sure we don’t leave anyone behind,” said Smith, from ASCE.

And, of course, panelists pointed out that any future infrastructure investments must be planned with an eye toward resilience and sustainability in the face of climate change. All four panelists agreed that to be effective, federal funds in any new infrastructure initiative cannot simply go to rebuilding the infrastructure of the past.

“We need a paradigm shift,” said Blackwell. “Of course, at ASLA, we’d like to see all of the recommendations from our Smart Policies for a Changing Climate report to be implemented.”

But real change may not come in one sweeping package. Small, incremental steps may be the only way forward.

“I don’t see a lot of change happening big-and-bold,” said Christiansen. “But we’re starting to see glimmers.” If we continue to push for change together, bit by bit, our persistence and optimism can pay off.

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