PROJECTUsing Dollars with Sense: Ideas for Better Infrastructure Choices

Sarah Rosen Wartell: Building Infrastructure for the Present and Future

March 26, 2018

America’s infrastructure challenges lie at the intersection of the present and future. We’ve all heard the stories of immediate need: decaying bridges, unmaintained subway and railway lines, aging water systems, and broadband internet that doesn’t reach rural communities. But rapid changes to the environment, innovative technology, and shifting demographics remind us that even up-to-date infrastructure may not be sufficient to meet the challenges of the future.

Over the past several weeks, the Urban Institute has hosted an essay series dedicated to meeting both these challenges. As we saw with the release of the president’s plan last month, the infrastructure debate invariably trends toward questions of numbers: How much will the federal government spend, and how will we pay for it? “Using Dollars with Sense: Ideas for Better Infrastructure Choices,” inspired by visiting fellow Shoshana Lew’s recent paper (Lew 2017), sought to address the equally important questions of what we are paying for, and how we should decide.

This forum has brought together 20 experts with a range of perspectives, all seeking to answer the same two questions: How can we make effective choices about what infrastructure to build? and What policy levers might help us along the way?

There are any number of answers to these questions, each reflective of priorities, values, and views of how best to serve the public interest. Different people and different places may have different answers, but our contributors agree that maximizing return on investment is essential to building a stronger pipeline of projects that merit our collective efforts and resources. As Paul Brubaker notes in his essay, it is important to “ensure every project has clear and measurable outcomes.” There are different ways to measure, however, and different outcomes–or returns–toward which a project can aspire. Our contributors identified several over the course of this essay series:

Meeting the demands of changing technology and innovation

As Marcia Hale notes, “The US has led the way in developing innovative infrastructure projects that boosted our productivity and made us the world’s strongest economy. We need to replicate that vision and continue to take bold steps.” Achieving this goal can mean several things. For Hale, it means selecting specific, large-scale investments in nationally significant areas—like the Northeast Corridor—and creating consensus around getting them done.

Others, like Brubaker, consider technology integration crucial to innovative decisionmaking. He argues that forward-thinking investment should clearly reflect the innovation and technology that increasingly dictate “how people and goods can move safely and efficiently in the 21st century.” Brubaker points to such examples as dedicated right-of-way for autonomous vehicles, 5G wireless networks, and charging capacity for electric vehicles as they become more prevalent.

Rob Puentes, meanwhile, emphasizes the need to innovate to remain competitive in a global economy. He notes that “China is well on its way to building the most sophisticated network of ports and freight hubs,” that the “Dutch are global leaders in planning and building resilient infrastructure,” and that Canada “upgraded its air traffic control system with modern technology and now sells the technology worldwide.”

Prioritizing resilient infrastructure development

Several contributors key in on the importance of identifying investments that will increase resilience to changing environmental conditions. As Bob Perciasepe notes,

Many parts of the US need no reminder of why we must build better and smarter than we used to. From hurricanes in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico to California’s wildfires, a record-setting 16 different billion-dollar weather and climate disasters cost the US a record-breaking $306 billion last year. Those disasters resulted in property and infrastructure damage that will take time to rebuild.

Other authors echo this sentiment. Emil Frankel and Janet Kavinoky argue that “in the context of rising sea levels, increasingly destructive weather events, more frequent flooding, and more powerful storm surges, states and localities should be required to use federal funds…to construct resilient facilities and systems.” Writing from the perspective of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Kristina Swallow and Greg DiLoreto contend that to maximize return on investment, projects need to be built resiliently, able to “withstand extreme weather and other hazard events,” as well as sustainably, supporting what they call a “triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental benefits.”

Facilitating access to opportunity

As former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx notes, “Transportation serves a functional purpose, as it connects people to jobs and economic opportunity, education, health care, and other services.” He notes the disparate impacts that construction of highway assets had across the country; in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Charlotte, for example, the interstate highway system bifurcated some communities while connecting others to national networks.

Indeed, argue Angela Glover Blackwell and Anita Cozart, transportation “influences who can participate in society, who gets left behind, and whose children are most likely to advance.” Citing a Harvard study that examined the correlation between transportation access and economic opportunity, Blackwell and Cozart contend that connecting people to jobs and opportunity should be a priority in choosing transportation projects.

Writing from the perspective of a metropolitan planning organization, Joe Szabo explains how striving for greater connectivity can play out on the ground. Noting that the Chicago region has lagged economically, with globalization and new technology poised to exacerbate challenges for low-skilled workers, Szabo describes how the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has studied mobility patterns in areas with lower income and skills bases to target long-range planning toward connecting Chicago residents of those areas to education, jobs, and other opportunities.

After answering the initial two questions, the essays focus on a third: How do we ensure that the investments we make align with those goals and priorities?

Once outcomes are defined, different policy tools can help achieve them, as several “Using Dollars with Sense” contributors explain.

Improving planning processes through asset management

Lew’s recent paper, as well as some essays in this series, focus on the promise of implementing new asset management requirements. Set federally but implemented at the state and local level, where most project decisions are made, these requirements are designed to expand the use of life-cycle cost analysis, risk management, and long-term planning across agencies’ portfolios. The implementation of these plans provides one opportunity for integrating various cost-benefit criteria at scale.

Jodie Misiak and John Porcari note that asset management analysis can be especially important when evaluating different investments, be it across transportation modes or when choosing whether to maintain existing assets or build new ones. For the public, such trade-offs may mean, for example, the difference between a new subway stop or more reliable service on the current tracks.

Measuring performance through benchmarking

As Monique Rollins explains, improving performance benchmarking practices is important for providing public transparency and for translating between the value of public and privately owned assets. This may be especially important given the current administration’s focus on expanding leverage of nonfederal funds, including through financing and partnership with the private sector.

Justifying hard choices through state and local impact

Finally, we must not overlook the role of state and local decisionmakers—those closest to specific projects—in driving infrastructure decisions that yield impact for their constituencies. Phil Washington highlights how successful transit projects completed by LA Metro improved their surrounding communities through investments like the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor project, the fast-track construction of a rail line, or the “major enhancement to Metro’s Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station, which connects thousands of transit riders to health services, jobs, and training at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital medical campus and adjacent areas.” 

Demonstrating the impact of specific projects, particularly at the state and local levels, can be instrumental in building public confidence and the political will to make hard choices. As John Robert Smith notes, “Citizens believe that decisions about infrastructure are the result of murky, mysterious political processes.” This helps explain why, while federal infrastructure packages have proved hard to achieve, states and localities around the country are taking action. Puentes points out that more than 300 state and local ballot measures pertaining to funding for transportation projects passed in 2016, “raising over $213 billion for investment.” 

Regardless of who chooses, what criteria they prioritize, and what tools they use to get there, all levels of government are ultimately accountable to the citizens they serve. With that comes the responsibility to select infrastructure projects that meet people’s needs; connect them safely to jobs, schools, and health care; and deliver goods to fuel their daily lives. Whether spending ranks in the trillions, billions, millions, or the thousands, the same challenges apply and can guide more strategic outcomes. As the national debate continues, and with it the search for pay-fors, let’s make sure that we also stay focused on what we are investing in and how we steer investment toward measurable outcomes that meet our collective aspiration for our communities and country.


Lew, Shoshana. 2017. “Cultivating a Strategic Project Portfolio through Transportation Asset Management.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Sarah Rosen Wartell: Building Infrastructure for the Present and Future
Sarah Rosen Wartell
Tracy Gordon, Shoshana Lew, and Matt Rogers
Anthony Foxx
Kristina Swallow and Greg DiLoreto
Phillip A. Washington
Monique Rollins
Jodie Misiak and John Porcari
Angela Glover Blackwell and Anita Cozart
Paul Brubaker
Bob Perciasepe
Emil Frankel and Janet Kavinoky
Joseph C. Szabo
Marcia Hale
Robert Puentes
John Robert Smith
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center