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Toward a New American Infrastructure
Julia Levitt, 9 Jan 09


The trillion dollar question: What will the next iteration of American infrastructure look like?

Yesterday I sat in on a press teleconference with the three co-chairs of the bipartisan coalition Building America's Future: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The main topic of discussion: the results of a national poll, paid for by their group, which suggest that U.S. citizens across party lines overwhelmingly support infrastructure improvement, and that most would willingly approve a one percent increase in taxes to pay for the work.

The conference call involved a lot of hopeful rhetoric. The Governor of California cited the hefty investments his own state has already made in improving schools, housing, roads and levees, and future improvements in the states' prisons and a high speed rail plan, and commented that he looks forward to developing public-private partnerships that will not only help get these programs running, but that will help sustain them over time.

Mayor Bloomberg stressed the role of local governments in choosing which infrastructure projects are right for their districts, and allocating funds accordingly. New York City, he said, will be spending $10.4 billion of its own funds on infrastructure improvements this year. But if federal money is allocated, he said, it must be allocated wisely. "If all we do is spend money on the same old things for the same old places, that would take away the opportunity to use a crisis to instill change."

And though infrastructure improvements are an important part of the economic stimulus plan forthcoming from the Obama administration, Rendell cautioned, the plan for infrastructure will need to continue into the future long after the stimulus programs are no longer needed. Rendell called for a ten-year commitment – and dedicated federal budget -- for rebuilding nationwide infrastructure, and acknowledged that the process would likely come in phases.

Repairs to crumbling bridges, roads and levees, for example, are "shovel-ready" projects that don't require the months for environmental impact assessments and permitting that new projects demand. Because they offer state governments the ability to turn federal money into jobs and projects most quickly, these projects will be the likely first recipients of the stimulus package funds. To ensure that there will be funding in place for new projects that require lengthier approval processes like high-speed rail connections (not to mention, I would add, projects such as smart grids that will likely take even a few years' more of engineering, planning and scientific evaluation) we should be planning now to continue supporting these initiatives well into the future.

The other main point of the conversation was the issue of transparency and accountability in government, buzzwords that have held constant in American politics -- from early in the presidential primaries to Wednesday's announcement that Nancy Killefer will fill the newly created position of chief performance officer -- and which I'm sure we'll continue to hear well into the year to come.

Although we at Worldchanging agree with the broad points outlined by Building America's Future – certainly we should harness the opportunity before us to repair and rebuild our broken and outdated infrastructure; and certainly, there should be a mode of accountability in government – I need to state that a poll reporting such overwhelming numbers in favor of investing in our infrastructure which has been paid for by an organization whose website is should be taken with a handful of salt (You can see a summary of the survey online here). That said, I still think that it's safe to say that the question is not "should Americans invest in infrastructure," nor is it "should those investments be tracked to ensure transparency and accountability." The answer to both those questions is yes.

The real question is, what kind of infrastructure are we going to build? There are so many opportunities out there to rebuild in a forward-thinking, sustainable way that it's understandably difficult to know where to begin.

When it comes to pouring concrete, our allies at Transportation for America are speaking out in favor of repairing existing bridges, roads and highways before we invest in new highway projects. And whether federal money should now go to new highways at all is in serious doubt, considering our need to wean the country off fossil fuels, and the negative social, psychological, economic and environmental consequences of long commutes in traffic, and the fact that studies have shown that new lanes of highway will only increase transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions (PDF). Improving existing roads to create complete streets that support cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians, however, will encourage alternative, healthier modes of mobility that our neighborhoods need.

And the ways in which we invest in the built environment will play an important role also. Suburban development in the United States – the large, single-family homes on large lots that we've seen much of since the end of World War II – is extremely costly when it comes to providing utilities and other municipal amenities to residents: as noted in this Brookings Institute study (PDF), development on lots of one acre in size is estimated at $90,000 per home. So choosing where our infrastructure dollars go will also ideally mean choosing how we develop our land.

And, as we discussed in a recent feature, now is the time to invest money in projects that will ultimately pay off in the long run by saving energy or replacing sources that currently come at an unsustainable price. Obama has shown he understands the need to do this in the built environment by pledging to retrofit federal buildings for energy-efficiency – large up-front investments that will create jobs today, and will save millions in taxpayer funds in the future. Other investments in infrastructure that is literally smart – smart grids, and the Smart Garage concept under testing by RMI -- where our vehicles will interact with buildings and utilities to store and distribute power with les waste.

What I see emerging here are two major needs as President-Elect Obama and the members of Congress decide which projects deserve federal stimulus, and how best to meet the goal that many before me have stated: turning crisis into opportunity to rebuild a more sustainable America. We encourage leaders, like those at the helm of Building America's Future and others, to develop a system for accountability that will ensure that the projects we choose are held to the highest standards for quality, efficiency and environmental effectiveness that we know. And we encourage Americans to be watchdogs themselves, staying informed so that they understand what solutions are possible ... and why the best time to embrace the possible is right now.

Photo: "Infrastructure," by flickr/aaardvaark, Creative Commons license.

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You're right that we choose how to develop our land in picking infrastructure investments.

Take this one step further. What if we realized that the ultimate infrastructure (structure that lies beneath or within) is soil organic matter, soil biology? Yes, our roads have potholes and our bridges are rusty. Levees could be higher and stouter, but most levees are merely bandaids to the loss of water-holding soil organic matter.

Posted by: Peter Donovan on 9 Jan 09

Sustainable Infrastructure for Economic Recovery

While the politics of economic recovery continue, Sustainable Land Development International (SLDI) has offered the Obama Transition Team a proposal designed to make the process – and our future – more sustainable.

In D.C., a dozen real estate trade groups have asked Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to include them in a $200 billion lending program. Some of the country's biggest property developers are warning policy makers that thousands of office complexes, hotels, shopping centers and other commercial buildings are headed into defaults, foreclosures and bankruptcies. By one estimate, $160 billion of commercial mortgages need to be refinanced next year, and lenders aren't offering the generous terms that were common in the past.

Meanwhile, splattered across front pages of newspapers all over the country last week are reports that banks are refusing to account for how they've used public bailout dollars so far. Twenty-one banks that received at least $1 billion each were asked four simple questions: How much has been spent? What was it spent on? How much is being held in savings? What's the plan for the rest?

Not one bank gave a detailed answer. Apparently the banks - and maybe even the Treasury secretary - don't get the message: Transparency is not only the best policy, it's the only rational one.

Amid all the bad news and demands being placed on the US President-elect Obama transition team, Sustainable Land Development International (SLDI) offers a reason to hope for the future by formally submitting its offer of assistance to help boost the team's economic recovery plan and policy agenda – and save the country billions in the process. In a transparent and public proposal to the Obama team, SLDI has offered a public-private partnership, its Sustainable Land Development Best Practices System, and the breadth of its research and collective knowledge to combat the country’s economic woes, enhance environmental stewardship and increase social responsibility - all at the same time.

Terry Mock
Executive Director
Sustainable Land Development International

Promoting land development worldwide that balances the needs of people, planet and profit - for today and future generations.

Posted by: Terry Mock on 11 Jan 09

This is very timely and perfect. I really appreciate the fact you reported on this. After the recent MIT Tech Review article about "A Grid for Green Energy" I've been researching infrastructure a great deal and it looks more and more like one of the biggest hidden weaknesses of the United States right now. Most of our social gridwork is decaying towards failure and obsolescence and there's increasingly fewer resources available to bridge the gap.

Posted by: Justin Boland on 15 Jan 09

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