Infrastructure reboot

Last week during his State of the Union address, President Trump cast the national spotlight back on infrastructure with a promise of $200 billion in federal aid. However, accompanying this promise was a clear message that the Trump Administration intends to rethink—read: limit—the use of these federal funds for infrastructure, putting most of the responsibility onto states, tribes, localities, and the private sector. The administration also clearly aims to speed up federal processes for permitting and licensing so as to accomplish in two years what can today take seven years or more. A fact sheet published by the White House underscores these messages with its list of four key principles for how the $200 billion will be spent:

  • Make targeted federal investments by focusing on the ‘most transformative projects’
  • Encourage self-help at the state and local levels
  • Align infrastructure investment with entities best suited to provide sustained and efficient investment by assuming that other entities—specifically the private sector—can more efficiently manage services done federally today
  • Leverage the private sector through private-public partnerships

The fact sheet also mentions four additional infrastructure proposals outside of the $200 billion where the administration is eying changes, including privatizing air traffic control and expanding how VA infrastructure is managed.

The aspect of the plan that has captured most of the media conversation is about the ‘multiplier magic’ seemingly at play—that is, the president’s assertion that $200 billion in federal funds will incite $1.3 trillion in funding overall. The major assumption is that states, tribes, localities, and the private sector will provide $6.50 for every $1 in federal funds, after being properly incentivized by federal policies and buoyed by federal starter money. Only time will tell how effective the federal policies are at incentivizing outside investment. However, raising the capital required for expensive infrastructure problems will not be the only challenge; after all, infrastructure is inherently a public good, and privatizing things like roads, water, and broadband always raises equity concerns. These two issues—the financial multiplier and equity concerns—are sure to take up the bulk of the debates in Congress and the media.

Despite all this, there is yet another critical issue at play.

I’ve previously argued that any infrastructure plan, no matter how well funded and supported, will fail if all it does is rebuild our 20th century infrastructure, diligently replacing each old bridge and pipe with a new one. The world has changed since those bridges and pipes were built, and it will change even more in another 50 years. Therefore, we must take this opportunity now, when every aspect of our infrastructure is in need of attention, to rebuild in a way that is future-focused and looks holistically at the whole system. So the question becomes: Will the federal role that the administration is proposing enable this holistic and future-focused approach to infrastructure that is required for a 21st century society, complete with changing traffic and living patterns and the digitalization, ‘smartening,’ and electrification of nearly, well, everything?

So what does the necessary, future-focused transformation require?

First of all, it needs a powerful mission statement, one that unifies scattered stakeholders and bolsters them through the ups and downs of a long-term endeavor. States and local groups can craft this statement, but the most meaningful mission statement would instead come from the top—a federal conviction that the United States is moving towards the future by setting a path in which all Americans can believe, work towards, and invest. Unfortunately, the federal mission statement put forth so far—to limit federal involvement and accelerate permitting—is more tactical than aspirational.

In addition, the transformation would need to be focused on the long-term because true transformation takes time. Humans are not great at the type of long-term planning and commitment required, particularly for a project as expensive as infrastructure. Meanwhile, states and local governments most acutely feel the political pressure against tax hikes for infrastructure funding. This gives room to the federal government to play a primary role by becoming the keepers of the long-term vision and having the patience to guide the country through the long overhaul process.  

The achievement and celebration of short-term goals are also required so as to bolster motivation and keep momentum going throughout the long transformation process. Here is where states and local groups can really shine: No one knows better than they what local infrastructure issues could be done quickly to have major impact in their regions, particularly when partnered with the private sector for increased speed and funding.

Finally, a true transformation of U.S. infrastructure will demand capable thinkers and technicians at every level and across sectors who will properly and efficiently rebuild an infrastructure system that is fully prepared for the next century. After all, the digital systems that will modernize traffic patterns, broadband connections, and city operations will present formidable challenges to ensure interconnectivity and daily operations—but with the best problem solvers in the field on hand, these challenges can be met and overcome.

Amidst the complex and necessary debates on funding, we shouldn’t lose sight of the opportunity we have for a true infrastructure transformation. The lack of an inspiring mission statement and long-term focus and commitment from the federal government so far is troubling, for though all sectors and levels of government will have a role to play, in some areas the federal government is best suited to carry us into the 21st century world of infrastructure our country needs.

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