Robert Puentes: Reframing Infrastructure: Why and How the National Narrative Needs to Change

March 8, 2017

The much-anticipated release of the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan in February 2018 was met with tepid applause, shoulder shrugs, and eye rolling.1 After several years of optimism that the nation would finally make good on promises to get serious about infrastructure—along with full-throated calls for new revenue from influential groups like the US Chamber—the infrastructure debate appears stalled.2

Why the continued disconnect? There is no question that infrastructure matters. And, importantly these days, that sentiment is not just bipartisan, it is nonpartisan. Everyone recognizes that infrastructure is the backbone of a healthy national economy and the conduit for reaching important national goals around economic growth, job access, and global trade. We know it links supply chains to move goods and services across domestic and international borders. Households in both urban and rural areas rely on it to connect to high-quality opportunities for employment, health care, and education. And workers from coast to coast rely on infrastructure to directly support 11 percent of all US jobs (Kane and Puentes 2014). Fourteen million Americans work for public agencies and private firms that are relatively well paying and have low barriers to entry.

To keep infrastructure from spasming back and forth in our national discourse, we need a new narrative. I recognize this sounds like something only a Washington think-tanker would care about, but without a comprehensive plan for upgrading, expanding, modernizing, integrating, and financing infrastructure, we will continue to go nowhere. 

There are several major problems.

For one, the crisis-driven approach we have pursued is not sufficient. Of course, the infrastructure catastrophes that strike the country demand immediate attention, and health and safety are paramount. But the national story that focuses on the sorry state of infrastructure is not working. An important study from RAND recently called into question the conventional wisdom “that US infrastructure needs are not being met” (Knopman et al. 2017). 

A better approach may be to focus on our infrastructure’s obsolescence. Take aviation. While the United States remains the gold standard in aviation technology and safety around the globe, we continue to rely on World War II–era ground-based radar technology (Puentes and Neiva 2017). Alarms about safety and condition do not ring true, but we know state-of-the-art technology can make the network more efficient (Puentes and Neiva 2017). To be sure, our transit systems in places like Baltimore, New York City, and Washington, DC, need to focus on basic maintenance and upkeep. But they must also embrace new app-based mobility tools and the forthcoming era of automated vehicles.3

We also need to get away from talking about infrastructure for infrastructure’s sake and focus on the critical role of infrastructure as a prime strategy to expand educational and employment opportunities, reduce poverty, and foster a strong and diverse middle class. Recent work out of Harvard University found that commuting times and transportation access are the largest determinants in helping households escape poverty.4 We also need to recognize that infrastructure investments also have the potential to undermine neighborhoods and disconnect people from jobs and opportunity by serving as physical barriers between neighborhoods.5 A recent analysis illustrated how massive highway investments devastated communities in cities like Detroit, Michigan; Oakland, California; and Richmond, Virginia.6

We should also go deeper in the global comparisons about infrastructure. Rankings such as those from the World Economic Forum show American infrastructure has fallen from the best in the world to the 10th best in a span of 15 years (Schwab 2017), a good talking point but too abstract to prompt serious action. Better is to highlight that our global competitors are beginning to provide the leadership many are now calling on the American government to provide. China is building the most sophisticated network of ports and freight hubs in the world while trying to replicate our network of advanced research institutions and universities (Cole et al. 2008). The Dutch are global leaders in planning and building resilient infrastructure and are exporting that expertise.7 Canada upgraded its air traffic control system with modern technology and now sells the technology worldwide.8 Germany recently developed its first master plan to strengthen its freight and logistics, and other countries are seeking to replicate the plan (Fichert 2017).

The lesson for moving a major bipartisan federal infrastructure package is this: be specific. Unlike the lukewarm response that national infrastructure proposals receive from voters, on the local level, voters demonstrate their commitment to infrastructure time and time again.9 On Election Day 2016, voters considered 436 state and local ballot measures to advise on future transportation projects as well as funding new and existing transportation options through taxes, bonds, and other mechanisms. Over 70 percent of these measures passed, raising over $213 billion for investment.10 In 2017, the approval rate was even higher.11

Voters support specific projects in specific places, with precise means to pay for them. The just-trust-us approach coming out of Washington needs work.

The national infrastructure discussion was given a boost over the past year by two executive branch publications: one at the tail end of the Obama administration and one during the presidential transition. The first is a report commissioned by the Treasury Department that examined several dozen infrastructure projects of major significance and assessed their economic impact (Horst et al. 2016). The report found that these projects would generate $800 billion in economic return, but the unintended value is in highlighting explicit investments, making the infrastructure discussions real and tangible. These investments include a new bridge in Hampton Roads, Virginia, to provide access and relieve traffic congestion, and a levee in southeastern Louisiana to control flooding problems. The other document was a list of infrastructure projects prepared by President Trump’s transition team.12 The team helped solicit ideas for specific infrastructure projects to help determine the administration’s investment priorities.

We need to see more specific investments and then figure out how to get projects done. That is what critical national priorities like the New York region’s Gateway Project desperately need.13 How do we come together to make deliberate and intentional decisions?

A standing commission on infrastructure could help. A formal structure where federal, state, and local officials could meet on a routine basis would help tackle issues of mutual concern about infrastructure. The executive and legislative branches could appoint members to the commission, which would be the venue for discussions of shared federalist interest in infrastructure visioning, finance, implementation, performance, and private-sector collaboration. There is an insatiable demand from cities, states, and metropolitan areas across the country to learn from one another. Real-world examples help.

All this will not be enough to address the infrastructure challenges we face, but it is an important step. As long as the national debate is intangible, we will remain stuck in neutral.

Notes

  1. Fred Lucas, “Trump Releases Infrastructure Plan Focused on Deregulation and New Funding,” The Daily Signal, February 12, 2018; Jim Tankersley, “Experts Doubt Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Will Boost Economy,” New York Times, February 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/23/business/trump-infrastructure-economy.html; Jonathan Bernstein, “How Trump Doomed His Own Infrastructure Plan,” Bloomberg View, February 22, 2018.
  2. US Chamber of Commerce, “US Chamber Statement on Release of Trump Administration Infrastructure Plan,” press release, February 11, 2018.
  3. Lauren Isaac, “Driverless Vehicles and the Future of Public Transit,” Metro, December 28, 2017.
  4. See the website for the Equality of Opportunity Project.
  5. Alana Semuels, “A Departure from Decades of Highway Policy,” Atlantic, March 29, 2016.
  6. Johnny Miller, “Roads to Nowhere: How Infrastructure Built on American Inequality,” Guardian, February 21, 2018.
  7. Jeff Chu, “How the Netherlands Became the Biggest Exporter of Resilience,” Fast Company, November 1, 2013.
  8. Air Traffic Control,” NAV CANADA, accessed February 28, 2018.
  9. Americans Don’t Give Infrastructure High Marks, But Don’t Want to Pay to Fix It,” Rasmussen Reports, December 20, 2017.
  10. Ballot Measures by State,” Eno Center for Transportation, accessed February 28, 2018.
  11. American Public Transportation Association, “Nearly 90% of Transit Ballot Initiatives Pass in 2017,” Mass Transit, accessed February 28, 2018.
  12. Lynn Horsley, Steve Vockrodt, Walker Orenstein, and Lindsay Ware, “Exclusive: Trump Team Compiles Infrastructure Priority List,” McClatchyDC, January 24, 2017.
  13. Lydia DePillis, “The Biggest Infrastructure Nightmare Facing the United States,” CNN Money, January 26, 2018. 

References

Cole, David, Tony Furst, Sharon Daboin, Warren Hoemann, Michael Meyer, Richard Nordahl, Marygrace Parker, et al. 2008. Freight Mobility and Intermodal Connectivity in China. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration.

Fichert, Frank. 2017. “Transport Policy Planning in Germany: An Analysis of Political Programs and Investment Masterplans.” European Transport Research Review 9 (June): 1–12.

Horst, Toni, Richard Mudge, Raymond Ellis, and Kenneth Rubin. 2016. 40 Proposed US Transportation and Water Infrastructure Projects of Major Economic Significance. Los Angeles: AECOM.

Kane, Joseph, and Robert Puentes. 2014. Beyond Shovel-Ready: The Extent and Impact of US Infrastructure Jobs. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Knopman, Debra, Martin Wachs, Benjamin M. Miller, and Katherine Pfrommer. 2017. Not Everything Is Broken: The Future of US Transportation and Water Infrastructure Funding and Finance. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Puentes, Robert, and Rui Neiva. 2017. Time for Reform: Delivering Modern Air Traffic Control. Washington, DC: Eno Center for Transportation.

Schwab, Klaus. 2017. The Global Competitiveness Report: 2017–2018. Geneva, Switzerland: World Economic Forum.


Robert Puentes is president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank with the mission of improving transportation policy and leadership. Before joining Eno, Puentes was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, where he directed the program’s Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative. He is a nonresident senior fellow with Brookings. Before that, Puentes was director of infrastructure programs at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. He has worked on various transportation issues, infrastructure funding and finance, and city and urban planning. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Virginia, where he served on the alumni advisory board, and was an affiliated professor at Georgetown University. Puentes serves on various boards and committees, including the Federal Advisory Committee on Transportation Equity; the University of California, Los Angeles, Institute of Transportation Studies Advisory Board; the Shared Use Mobility Center board of directors; and New York State’s 2100 Infrastructure Commission. He is a regular contributor to newspapers and other media and has testified before congressional committes.