Infrastructure's Big Moment Is Coming
With a promised $1 trillion in investments on the horizon, U.S. cities could see an historic building boom. But today’s shovel-ready project can be tomorrow’s expensive mistake.
By Anthony Flint
Infrastructure is high on the agenda at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference, which began this weekend. The location—New York City—is a veritable showroom of projects. I took a sold-out Acela train that glided into Penn Station and carried on under the Hudson River, where a new tunnel is planned. The Second Avenue subway is up and running; north of town, a new Tappan Zee Bridge is being built. The city planning directors from around the country who convened for this annual gathering got a tour of Hudson Yards, rising up near the convention center, and learned about the financing innovations that made it possible, including value capture—harnessing a portion of the massive increases in property values associated with the extension of the 7 subway line.
But not far away, there’s a reminder of how urban infrastructure can go wrong: the Sheridan Expressway, a few miles away in the Bronx. The short stretch of highway opened in 1963 in the Hunts Point neighborhood, part of the road-building frenzy orchestrated by New York’s legendary get-things-done czar, Robert Moses. Like many other extensions through urban neighborhoods under the Interstate Highway Act, the jumble of asphalt and steel accelerated blight in the community, and, some would argue, further facilitated white flight to the suburbs
Governor Andrew Cuomo now proposes spending $1.8 billion to dismantle it, in the same spirit of urban reclamation behind highway re-dos in other cities, from Boston’s Big Dig to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway. The deconstruction looks very promising in many respects. But it too is raising problems. Some fear the dismantling and redevelopment plan will fuel gentrification in the Bronx. So it is that a shovel-ready project from a half-century ago has become the bad gift that keeps on giving.
I bring up the Sheridan Expressway not to dwell on the negative, among all the shiny objects that surround us here, but to call for a stop-and-think moment as the nation readies for a promised $1 trillion investment in infrastructure. Few things have more impact on people and place than the roads and bridges and transit lines we build, and the critical utilities that keep them running. Most of these projects are associated with progress, but outcomes can be good or bad. We’re now hearing a lot about how shovel-ready ones will be favored by the new administration. At next week’s Infrastructure Week forum, which will feature Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the annual event is being promoted with a hashtag that underscores that sense of urgency: #TimeToBuild.
At the risk of stating the obvious, however, being ready to break ground in a short period of time shouldn’t be the only criteria. It’s also not just about comparing the virtues of investing in highways versus transit. It’s about stepping back and evaluating how projects will perform—how they will best serve cities, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide accessibility in underserved communities, be long-lasting and resilient, and provide the best economic payoff in the long run.
A more cold-eyed approach fully considers the cost of funding, the length of the investment, and the duration of the benefits generated. Planners need to maximize benefits over the full lifecycle of any project, and be mindful of maintenance costs. Additionally, careful consideration should be given to what economists call non-pecuniary benefits and costs—those hard-to-measure ramifications. An hour saved commuting for a low-income worker should be given equal consideration to an hour saved by a higher-income worker.
What else? The nation would be well-served to consider a range of gray, green, and blue infrastructure. In the area of resilience, for example, traditional hard engineering approaches—waterproofing transit systems, tunnels and utilities, or building barriers—work best in tandem with the integration of nature, such as wetlands restoration or natural flood zones that absorb storm surge. Technological advances in green infrastructure can help local communities adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change, and make them better prepared for disasters that are now both environmentally and economically so damaging.
This is also a time when regional planning becomes hugely relevant, seeing the big picture for megaregions like the Northeast Corridor. On the financing front, there are a range of options, from the $3.7 trillion municipal bond market to value capture, which recognizes the way public investments in infrastructure benefit the private sector.
As projects truly pass muster in all these different ways, by all means, much more streamlining is achievable in the actual execution of the work. The United Kingdom has fine-tuned the use of special-purpose entities that expire upon completion; the stunning CrossRail project is testimony to both planning and execution. In the case of the aforementioned Tappan Zee Bridge, a number of processes, from procurement to environmental reviews, were done in time-saving parallel fashion. Speaking at the Journalists Forum last month at the Lincoln Institute (where I’m a fellow and the director of public affairs), Robert Yaro, president emeritus of the Regional Plan Association, discussed other techniques, such as doing “design-build” and agreeing to best-value versus low-bid procurement.
Mindful of white elephants that blow past deadlines and careen over-budget, Congress is already looking at some of these methods. Last week, a Senate panel heard from state officials and infrastructure experts about streamlining regulations, improving quality, and limiting costs.
There’s no understating just how big a moment this is. As Armando Carbonell and Susannah Drake explore in their essay “Doubling Down on Infrastructure,” the nation has come to this stage after massive investments in canals, ports, and rail in the 19th century and the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the Interstate Highway Act, arguably the last comprehensive federally funded effort, in the 20th century. “The repair and replacement of these monumental infrastructure systems in their current configurations does not reflect social, environmental, and technological advances that have occurred over the last half century,” they write. “That task requires what might be called WPA 2.0—the framework of that massive undertaking, but infused with new thinking about the environment and resilience, to make future infrastructure longer-lasting and with greater economic payoff.”
This century’s great infrastructure project can be both big and smart. It’s understandable for politicians to get pumped up and seek to deploy workers as soon as possible. But these kinds of considerations, and a more judicious approach, will pay off in the long run. We can’t predict everything, but we don’t want to build stuff that doesn’t work, on a practical level, 30 years from now—infrastructure that is swamped by sea level rise, for example. Or that soaks up so much time, energy and resources being dismantled or retrofitted. Just ask the folks up in Hunts Point in the Bronx, still dealing with unintended consequences a half-century later.
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