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New president, new vision for infrastructure?

There hasn’t been a major infrastructure bill passed in the US for 20 years, with most funding going towards maintaining ageing assets. Will Joe Biden’s big Infrastructure Plan turn things around?

Author: Francisco X Pineda

21 December 2020

In the US, infrastructure has always been a world of dysfunctional politics, with often unclear allocation of responsibilities between federal, state and local government. On top of that, for some time now, it hasn’t been clear what ‘infrastructure’ is, nor has there been an ambitious reimagining of what it could be.

As Joe Biden is inaugurated as president of the United States, we have the political and economic conditions to change that. Biden’s Infrastructure Plan is prepared to offer a long-run vision for infrastructure, a strategy, and pragmatic short-term remedies – a vision of how infrastructure can better enable our economy and serve all of its citizens.

In the US, unlike the majority of the world, infrastructure is a matter largely relegated to subsidiary units of government. Today, nearly three quarters of infrastructure spending happens at the state and local levels. This arrangement, while it does have a logic to it, leads to a disconnect between the responsibility to build, the authority to permit, and the ability to fund.

A case in point: New York’s public transit system is more than 100 years old. It is the busiest in the nation by a factor of 10 and the largest in the world in terms of stations (over 472). Over half of all of New Yorkers rely on the transit system. Congestion pricing was meant to fund a substantial portion of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s upgrades and capital plan, but it has been held up at the federal level for seemingly political reasons masquerading as regulatory ones.

This is not a new problem. The story of how to “do infrastructure” has vexed the United States since its founding. Legal scholar Adam J White goes so far as to suggest that infrastructure considerations were core to the founders’ formation of our constitution: “…problems of infrastructure policy drove George Washington, James Madison, and others to form our constitutional system of government”.

“This is not a new problem. The story of how to ‘do infrastructure’ has vexed the United States since its founding” Francisco X Pineda FRICS

In the past 20 years we have not seen a major national infrastructure bill passed, and the previous administration’s four-year tenure was dotted with Infrastructure Weeks, instead of the $1trn infrastructure plan promised. Most contemporary funding initiatives were almost exclusively for ongoing repairs and maintenance instead of new capital projects.

Ultimately, the problems underlying our nation’s infrastructure mess are not just structural. They are also philosophical. It is not just our infrastructure that needs updating, but our concept of infrastructure.

Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan is as close as we have been to understanding infrastructure the way the rest of the world does: as an important piece of national and geo-political strategy. The plan is built around three defining objectives: clean energy, modernising the current system and ensuring equity. It makes sense. It repositions infrastructure and, by extension, its role in our current and future socio-economic systems.

Francisco X Pineda FRICS is faculty and director at Columbia University

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