New Research Will Provide Guidance to Policymakers on Tackling Infrastructure Projects for the New Economy

2.1.12 | There’s been a lot of talk about infrastructure projects in these past few weeks and their ability to create jobs and save the economy. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama proposed that a portion of the money saved from military spending be used to fund projects to rebuild American infrastructure:

“We’ve got crumbling roads and bridges; a power grid that wastes too much energy; an incomplete high-speed broadband network that prevents a small business owner in rural America from selling her products all over the world,” he said.”… There’s never been a better time to build.”

Yet the transportation bill being proposed by house Republicans is drawing criticism for being “a return to 1950s-style transportation policy” for drawing resources away from transit, environmental protection and toward highway spending and big oil.

In a podcast at the Brookings Institution, senior fellow Robert Puentes says that infrastructure projects can be economic drivers, but only if done strategically. To move to the next economy that is “rich in exports, powered by low-carbon and rich with innovation,” Puentes says projects need to focus on things like port modernization, advanced telecommunications or transit. And importantly, policymakers need to think systemically.

Infrastructure projects have  “always been something that’s been siloed,” Puentes says, “and not connected to some of these issues around the economy which focus on jobs, which focus on some of the fiscal health of state and metropolitan areas.”

A new research initiative at the Urban Institute, led by transportation scholar Sandra Rosenbloom, aims to change that.

Their newly launched “Infrastructure Initiative” will build on their existing research in areas of urban development, public service delivery, jobs, taxes, and budgeting to understand how these issues intersect and to provide guidance to policymakers on targeting infrastructure projects going forward.

According to a press release the new initiative aims to “inform the public and government officials about the high-stakes choices in developing, operating, maintaining, and financing transportation networks, water and sewer systems, wireless and broadband communications, and the electrical grid.”

This new research is part of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, directed by BRR Network Member Rolf Pendall.

“The Institute already has deep expertise in several intersecting domains,” Pendall said. “This means we can go well beyond a single infrastructure project’s technical or engineering issues to answering systemic questions about cost, equity, economic and environmental impact, and risks.”

The initiative will examine alternative infrastructure investments, and evaluate demand management schemes, financing and operations, and public-private partnership models to provide practical advice to policymakers on what works.

Fuentes says successful infrastructure plans need to be targeted, think long-term about how to create jobs and investments where they matter, such as in green technology, or mass transit for sustainable growth.

Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program director Bruce Katz along with Judith Rodin highlighted work in Michigan in their series about state and local innovations. Michigan’s Gov. Rick Synder has proposed a state infrastructure plan that targets key projects that will support economic growth in the years ahead, with the vision of Michigan as “a global trade center and logistics hub.” One example is the development of the New International Trade Crossing that links Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

At BRR, Pendall heads up a team of researchers who are examining the governance of housing, transportation, and water systems in fast-growing metros .

By contrasting metropolitan areas with similar challenges (industrial restructuring, immigration, foreclosure, fast growth, and economic inequality), the researchers are building evidence about how decision-makers in metropolitan areas help their regions succeed in the face of short-term shocks and long-term stresses.

Photo by Office of Governor Patrick.

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