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Infrastructure
The Avenue

America’s infrastructure solutions begin at the ground level

In 2016, both presidential candidates pledged that their administrations would dedicate billions of dollars to federal infrastructure investment. But a full election cycle and many “Infrastructure Weeks” later, there have still been no significant advances in federal infrastructure policy. Lawmakers have made proposals ranging from status quo to revolutionary, but these top-down proposals have gone nowhere, failing to shake up the federal-centric approach that has failed the nation’s infrastructure.

This June, that pattern was broken with the release of America’s New Playbook for Infrastructure from the New Partnership on Infrastructure, which contains 26 proposals to enhance the country’s built environment. The playbook is a months-long effort—led by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s group Accelerator for America—which involved interviewing dozens of mayors and experts in the field of infrastructure. What makes the playbook different from plans coming out of the White House, Senate, or House of Representatives is that it starts with a bottom-up approach. The playbook is rooted in a practitioner’s perspective, targeted toward solving the routine challenges of developing meaningful infrastructure projects. [Full disclosure: I participated in the comment process on an early draft.

The result is a document that adds critical nuance and a unique perspective to the national conversation—focusing on local flexibility, encouraging innovation, and positioning infrastructure policy to meet the needs of the future instead of the past. As the federal government struggles to reconfigure its infrastructure program for the new century, policymakers would be wise to listen to the practitioners and consider the policies outlined in the playbook.

The proposal is helpful in calling out how the “heavily siloed” nature of federal infrastructure funding limits local flexibility. Most of this funding comes from a 1950s program designed to build the interstate highway system, with far less consideration of other types of infrastructure such as water, digital telecommunications, or social infrastructure. This siloed approach to infrastructure funding is perpetuated by current efforts in Congress, including in the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, which was passed unanimously out of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works but has yet to be signed into law. That bill reverses a long history of gradually allowing state and local governments more authority in determining funding priorities; it creates at least a dozen new categories of federal funding, depriving communities of the ability to use funds trapped in those categories to meet more pressing needs.

The New Partnership on Infrastructure’s playbook responds to these silos by introducing ways to modernize current policies, including simplifying broadband deployment, encouraging the use of electric vehicles, and incentivizing more efficient project-delivery mechanisms. Most interestingly, the playbook suggests accelerating the permitting process and providing predevelopment funds to expedite essential infrastructure projects. In the world of infrastructure improvement, it takes an incredibly long time to move from concept to project; the playbook helpfully flags this problem and provides meaningful solutions.

The wide scope of the playbook’s recommendations mirrors the complexity of the nation’s infrastructure problems. There are proposals that touch on finance, labor, the environment, procurement, health, innovation, research, communications, technology, and more. Clearly, our infrastructure needs have moved beyond just clean water and better transportation.

The playbook isn’t perfect. It struggles to clearly demarcate the sometimes competing responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments, running into concerns about the efficacy of the federal government taking a leading role in the improvement of state and local assets. Some of the playbook’s proposals limit local decisionmaking by restricting the use of funds to priorities established by the federal government (e.g., requiring state of good repair, identification of project efficiencies). Some expand local decisionmaking (e.g., reducing the “heavily siloed” nature of federal programs), while others suggest robust federal guidelines that communities can ignore (e.g., national design criteria for complete streets). The playbook would benefit from some additional thinking about the appropriate degree of decisionmaking authority at the federal, state, and local levels.

The playbook also puts too much focus on simplistic issues that are tempting to those assembling political coalitions. For example, it recommends a new federal program to train the skilled workers needed to deliver new infrastructure. While intuitive on its face, the proposal appears to ignore the fact that the U.S. already has 47 worker training programs across 15 agencies (on which we spend about $19 billion annually). The efficacy of these programs was called into question by a 2019 literature review conducted by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. Moreover, a cautionary report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York warns that workforce training programs can even struggle during recessions—such as the current one sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic—because the programs have difficulty predicting which skills will be in demand in the post-recession economy. Worker training clearly must be part of the response to our current economic crisis, but notwithstanding its political appeal, some deeper thinking should be undertaken before creating a 48th federal program to address the issue.

In sum, the playbook clearly differs from the standard policy proposal drafted by Washington, D.C. insiders. And while it would benefit from additional consideration, the playbook builds on actual experiences from local leaders to realign infrastructure policy to meet the varied and individual needs of our nation’s communities. It should be greeted as a welcome addition to the debate on how to best advance the network of statutes, regulations, and policies governing investment in state and local infrastructure.

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