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New Century Infrastructure: Where’s the Plan???

Jonathan D. Miller / Apr 23 2009

For Release Sunday, April 26, 2009
Citiwire.net

Jonathan D. MillerThe good news is that and states cities have begun fixing bridges, paving roads, repairing subway tracks, and upgrading sewage treatment plants.

And it’s clear–throwing stimulus money at ad hoc projects, generating jobs in a serious recession, can add value, especially when the funds are targeted at refurbishing aging systems which otherwise might break down or even collapse.

But let’s not pretend this short-term, ad hoc spending remotely addresses America’s infrastructure needs. The United States desperately requires a forward-looking plan for 21st century infrastructure that can support and sustain renewed economic growth and accommodate 100 million more Americans over the next 40 years.

Our last game-changing national infrastructure initiative dates back more than five decades ago to President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system–nearly 50,000 miles of sleek freeways, which spurred dramatic suburban growth and enabled long distance car and truck travel.

The problem is that once most interstates were completed in the late 1970s, we essentially stopped paying attention to infrastructure planning. Today the road-based model is an anachronism–unsustainable in a new century.

Since 1980 vehicle miles traveled has doubled and more than half of Americans, about 155 million people, live in car-dependent suburbs. That’s as many people as lived in the entire country in 1950. Many of those highways we built a generation ago reach the end of their effective lifecycles and just can’t accommodate the 200 million plus cars on our roads.

And while many of our fastest growing metros neglected mass transit over the past 30 years, we built only one new international airport (in Denver).

Is it any wonder why most of our major metropolitan areas face mounting traffic and even gridlock? The resulting congestion causes more than frustration and angst. Lost time constrains productivity and saps our economic competitiveness by increasing costs for moving people and goods. Driving-related expenses now equal or eclipse housing costs for residents in some markets.

At the same time, the nation’s gateway ports and airports will be stretched to accommodate forecast shipping requirements and airline passenger growth.

So where’s the strategy? Funding myriad local transportation projects can’t pass competitive muster when Europe builds transcontinental transportation networks to link commercial centers and China spends trillions of dollars on integrated road, rail, transit and airport systems. Even Canada has initiated a concerted, joint national-provincial program to rebuild transport infrastructure around key national hubs and gateways.

In Infrastructure 2009: Pivot Point, a report I just authored for the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young, we recommend a new approach for getting America out of its deep ditch, the federal government taking the lead. Key elements:

Identify National Networks: The President and Congress must identify new interconnecting national transport networks—rail, road, and air. Corridors for high speed passenger and freight rail must link to surrounding regional markets and merge into cross national networks. Innovative transit schemes, connected to airports and train stations, must help reduce car dependency, prevent bottlenecks in commercial centers, and decrease pollution.

Plan Holistically: Transportation policy and funding must integrate closely with land use planning and housing policy. Planners need to encourage development of more compact, pedestrian friendly neighborhoods tied into transit networks, connecting to commercial hubs. Separate schemes for roads, subways, and subdivisions won’t work anymore.

Consolidate Government Management: Federal, state and local governments must restructure agencies responsible for transportation, housing, water, and energy so that they manage and execute infrastructure policy in concert. The White House should develop national infrastructure strategy, working with a high level commission of policy experts, to identify national networks and select merit-based projects which fit objectives. States must break down silos between various transport agencies and local land use authorities to formulate long-range regional plans, which tie into national networks and coordinate with federal programs.

Change Funding Approaches: New infrastructure networks and necessary repairs will cost trillions of dollars over the next two decades. Funding burdens must shift from taxpayers to users, because depleted government coffers will not sustain initiatives. There’s no choice: we need higher gas taxes and more toll roads. Innovative user fee approaches like vehicle miles charges should be implemented, using new transponder technologies. Not only will these fees raise revenues to pay for new systems, they also will help people adjust behaviors to realize more economically efficient travel.

Federal funding to states and local governments must link directly to carrying out national objectives. The much talked about Infrastructure Bank is a no brainer to help finance national networks and attract more private capital, including advancing public private partnerships.

The ongoing economic dislocation has been a rude shock to Americans, who suddenly question whether we can maintain our living standards and lifestyles. But neglect of sound infrastructure planning will threaten the nation’s ability to recover and hobble our economy for generations. The Eisenhower model has seen its day. We need a new national plan–now!


Jonathan Miller’s column covers his third annual infrastructure forecast for the Urban Land Institute and the Urban Land Institute. He is also author of the authorative annual Emerging Trends in Real Estate report for ULI. His email is jonathan.david.miller@verizon.net.

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