Evidence and Ideas for Change What’s the role of infrastructure in expanding opportunity?
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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The discussion about our nation’s decaying bridges, aging water systems, and neglected railways always seems to focus on numbers. And since the president announced a $1.5 trillion proposal with only $200 billion in federal money, the question has been specifically, how much federal, state, and local governments will spend and how we’ll pay for it. Important questions, yes. But too narrow. We need to expand the infrastructure debate to delve into what we pay for and why we should make those choices.
Broadening the debate is important because fixing our infrastructure isn’t just about bricks and mortar; it’s about the consequences for people and communities. Decisions about what roads and subway systems to build or tear apart can increase jobs and boost economic growth. They can shape the lives of families. Ultimately, infrastructure can connect people to opportunity, which is why making the right investments matters. It matters, for instance, to children’s education, as we chronicled in a feature and report about school transportation in Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, New York City, and Washington, DC.


Urban also recently explored through a series of provocative essays what factors decisionmakers should keep in mind as they choose between infrastructure projects. Using Dollars with Sense: Ideas for Better Infrastructure Choices, brought together diverse voices from across the country, from a former secretary of transportation to mayors to corporate executives. Based on their collective perspectives, here are three measurable outcomes that infrastructure investments can aspire to achieve:

  • Facilitate equitable access to opportunity. Connecting people to jobs, education, health care, and other services and opportunities should be a priority in selecting transportation projects. Infrastructure influences who can participate in society and who gets left behind.
  • Meet the demands of changing technology and innovation. We need to innovate to stay competitive in a global economy, with more investment in, for instance, dedicated right-of-way that could be used by autonomous vehicles or other technologies still unimagined.
  • Prioritize building resilient communities. Decisionmakers must identify investments that will help boost resilience to changing environmental conditions. The tragic outcomes of California’s wildfires and last year’s hurricanes in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico are painful reminders of why we need to build better and smarter than before.

Many of our authors also emphasized the importance of finding ways to measure equity, innovation, and resilience, and not just fight over who pays the price.
I hope you’ll take a moment to check out these thought-provoking essays and help encourage a more inclusive debate about infrastructure in our country.

Live webcast: How to dramatically increase mobility from poverty
Join the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty virtually on May 3 for a discussion on what it would take to dramatically increase mobility from poverty. Staffed and supported by the Urban Institute, the Partnership is at the end of two years of learning with diverse communities nationwide and is now sharing powerful, actionable ideas for how to lift families out of poverty.

Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Infrastructure