Rebuild with purpose: An affirmative vision for 21st century American infrastructure

Rebuild with purpose:

An affirmative vision for 21st century American infrastructure
April 13, 2021

Editor’s note: In case you missed it, you can watch here an event with the Brookings Metro team, outside experts, and Sens. Maria Cantwell and Tom Carper on the future of American infrastructure, held on April 15, 2021.

Policymakers, practitioners, and the general public increasingly agree that our infrastructure systems are under pressure. Storm surges and coastal flooding continue to wreak havoc on our cities and towns. A lack of world-leading digital infrastructure has made it harder for businesses and people to compete in the global information economy. Outdated pipes and streets impact the health and safety of too many people.

Simply repairing our outmoded infrastructure systems with the same traditional policies, technologies, and designs is not enough. Americans are ready for a grand reimagining of and reinvestment in our infrastructure to revitalize the transportation, water, energy, and broadband systems that power our economy.

Our new report, Rebuild with purpose: An affirmative vision for 21st century American infrastructure, serves as the foundation for a new federal vision for American infrastructure. The report crafts an integrated plan to address four cross-cutting forces of change, and recommends a three-part framework to guide Congress and federal agencies’ strategic direction.

Today, we are living with the legacies of the last great federal infrastructure vision from the mid-20th century. But we are also living with that vision’s flaws. Disproportionate spending on highways stretched distances between people and businesses, divided neighborhoods, harmed our environment, and made transportation a burdensome expense. Construction in flood plains and sensitive coastal areas exposed us to higher risks. Limited direct investment in water utilities contributed to public health crises such as the one in Flint, Mich. And a hands-off approach to broadband left students and workers digitally disconnected in the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is a strategic interrelationship between public infrastructure investment and a dynamic, equitable market. With infrastructure a major topic of federal debate in 2021, now is the time to adopt an affirmative vision.

Clarifying national priorities

Our current moment provides an opportunity for action. Many past reports—from academia, government, business, and elsewhere—have designed solutions isolated around transportation, water, energy, and telecommunications needs. That is not this report. Infrastructure’s role is to deliver shared, sustainable prosperity across all types of projects, places, and people—and that requires a fundamental reimagining of how we talk about and frame our infrastructure needs.

Crafting a more integrated, coordinated vision must address two emerging and durable forces that impact all of our infrastructure systems:

Figure 1. Rising costs of U.S. climate disasters, 1980-2020

Figure 2. Household broadband adoption rates across the United States, 2019

Evolving challenges around climate and technology are not only impacting how our infrastructure systems perform, but also calling into question our capacity to manage and respond to these impacts. Providing safe, reliable, affordable, and accessible infrastructure requires leaders to harness two other forces of change:

Figure 3. Annual wage comparison, infrastructure occupations vs. all occupations, 2019

Figure 4. Indexed change in the price of selected infrastructure services, 2000 to 2019

Designing a future-looking federal infrastructure plan

These generational challenges also create generational opportunities. Transitioning to renewable energy sources, limiting development in vulnerable locations, and adopting more resilient building standards can help avoid the worst environmental impacts while still adapting to an evolving climate. Expanding broadband connectivity, skills programming, and sensor deployments can deliver economic efficiency and equity in the digital age. Creating new sector partnerships, expanding work-based learning programs, and leading more visible outreach for disadvantaged and underrepresented workers can ensure infrastructure industries serve as a growing source of economic prosperity. States and localities with more stable fiscal footing can boost net infrastructure investment and experiment with new data, designs, and projects.

These opportunities should serve as the foundation for a new affirmative federal vision. Instead of stubbornly attempting to spend more within traditional programs and expecting different results, congressional leaders and their executive branch partners should design policy to solve 21st century challenges and break free from decades of path dependencies.

To solve today’s challenges and capture future opportunities, we recommend Congress and federal agencies use a three-part framework to guide their strategic direction:

Figure 5. Theory of change: how to rebuild with purpose

(Note: Appendix A includes a streamlined list of over 90 individual recommendations)

Remaking capital-intensive systems like infrastructure takes a generation. But that is not an excuse to ignore legislative opportunities—like the palpable urgency in 2021—to test what’s possible and evaluate progress along the way. We need to use this moment to initiate short-term actions in support of longer-term structural changes. America has the trillions of dollars necessary to adopt a new vision, but we cannot afford to waste money or time on the wrong projects, policies, and actions.

Investing in infrastructure is always an optimistic choice. It reflects a collective belief that we, the people, can pool our resources to grow our businesses, improve our quality of life, and protect our environment for the generations to follow. The United States was built for optimistic choices. It’s time to rebuild.

About the Authors

Adie Tomer

Adie Tomer

Fellow – Metropolitan Policy Program
Joseph W. Kane

Joseph W. Kane

Senior Research Associate and Associate Fellow – Metropolitan Policy Program
Caroline George

Caroline George

Research Assistant – Metropolitan Policy Program

The authors would like to thank Tara Pelton for invaluable research and writing assistance for this project.