2009 National Planning Conference: Policy Keynote Address

Rebuilding America

By Kimberley Hodgson
Manager, Planning & Community Health Research Center

Can the nation's infrastructure meet the needs of current populations, withstand the impacts of climate change, and accommodate future population and economic growth?

Planners from around the county attending the Policy Keynote at APA's 2009 National Planning Conference heard an examination of new policies, programs, and financing to improve the nation's aging infrastructure.

Speakers at the Monday event in Minneapolis were APA Executive Director Paul Farmer, FAICP; Michael Lind, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and policy director of New America's Economic Growth Program; and Jeff Booth, partner at Holland & Knight.

Planners play a leading role

Farmer stressed that planners play a leading role at the state and local levels by reaching out and educating the political and business leaders about the issues. At the same time, federal legislation should "support, not undermine local planning efforts."

In November 2008, APA launched a new campaign, Rebuilding America for the purpose of evaluating the country's expanding infrastructure needs for the 21st century and creating a blueprint for action. Through a series of regional field hearings around the U.S., Rebuilding America provides a forum for regional leaders, planners, academics, allied professionals, engaged citizens, and others to provide feedback about the infrastructure issues and needs across the country. From transportation, waste, water, energy, technology, and telecommunications to public facilities and green infrastructure, the campaign is taking a comprehensive approach to the country's infrastructure needs.

Michael Lind spoke of a growing tension between future infrastructure improvements and the estimated cost of needed investment. "There is good news and bad news as a result of the [economic crisis]," said Lind. Any long term economic recovery program will require more massive investment in infrastructure than has previously been made; however the increasing national debt imposes severe political constraints in carrying out future infrastructure programs.

Infrastructure part of long-term recovery

Any national investment in infrastructure needs to be a part of a long-term recovery program. Lind indicated that there is a shift in thinking occurring in Washington. Policymakers are beginning to recognize that public investment in infrastructure plays a critical role in the recovery process, but also in "rebalancing the American economy for long-term sustainable economic growth." Infrastructure will help guide the nation in a direction of long-term prosperity.

While there is a consensus in Washington on the need for more public investment in infrastructure, the current economic crisis and the trillions of dollars already spent has contributed to the nation's growing deficit and debt. Lind speculates that we will see Washington focus on deficit and debt reduction, which will, to some extent, reshape the political climate.

Before the economic crisis, there was an emphasis on alternative financing for infrastructure, such as the creation of a nation infrastructure bank and a Build America Bond. A national infrastructure bank would allow payback over time for infrastructure investments and focus the investments on prioritized projects. Despite the promise of these alternative ideas and others, the emphasis on debt reduction will keep them outside the box, Lind said. Therefore, Lind expects to see more emphasis on infrastructure at the state and local levels, but not the federal level, except for the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill. "Given this emphasis on debt reduction for the next decade or so, we will need to be modest in our expectations of revolutionary change in public infrastructure," said Lind.

Room for optimism

Jeff Booth provided a more optimistic view of the federal government's role in public infrastructure investment. Both climate change legislation and the federal transportation bill present opportunities for public investment in the nation's infrastructure. Considering the findings of Growing Cooler, a recent publication of the Urban Land Institute, which indicated that between 28 percent and 38 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) come from surface transportation, Booth stressed that the nation will need to not only improve fuel and energy efficiency standards but also reduce vehicle miles traveled. Achieving Kyoto goals therefore becomes an issue of smart growth — how we live and grow our cities, he said. Research shows that urban areas typically offer more transportation choices and therefore emit less GHG per capita than suburban areas.

Therefore, the Clean Energy and Security Act presents an opportunity for infrastructure investment, specifically in Section 222. Booth called on planners to focus on this important piece of the legislation that connects transportation and land use and creates GHG emissions targets for the next 20 years at the state and metro level. "I urge you to contact your representatives," he said. "It is very important that MPOs [are given] the resources to achieve these targets."

This same pressure to link transportation, land use and GHG emissions is being seen in the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill. Booth said that the transportation bill will need to respond to the goals of the climate change bill.

Demographic changes are important, too

Booth also highlighted the need to address demographic changes in the U.S. Increases in minority populations and single households and changes in housing preferences, such as the increasing demand for housing in urban areas, warrants the need to address transportation for the next 50 years.

"We need a bill that looks into the future. We need to spend the next 50 years building infrastructure for tomorrow," not for the past, Booth said. "Where will we put the next 100 million people?" Today, very few Americans have transportation choice.

Existing infrastructure financing methods, such as the gas tax, are no longer sustainable methods, especially with increased fuel efficiency. A Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax has been proposed by some policymakers as good method to raise funds and change behavior. But Booth warns that if the VMT tax is effective in changing driving behavior and reducing the time people spend in their cars, then the VMT tax becomes ineffective in financing infrastructure. Instead, he suggests a funding mix of carbon tax, VMT tax, tolling and congestion pricing, among other methods.

Booth recommends a variety of funding options for surface transportation, such as a metro mobility program, to provide funds at the metro or regional level; a change in evaluation criteria of new starts programs to place more emphasis on transit stations; and accessibility to alternative transportation modes as opposed to mobility.

"We need to raise the percentage of individuals who have access to transportation choice ... and we need a more robust set of investments," Booth said. "Less than 50 percent of people live within a half-mile of transit in our metro areas." He said we need to:

  • Expand our housing availability and pedestrian accessibility
  • Link housing and transit and coordinate the efforts of FDA and HUD
  • Create sustainability districts around transit stations
  • Create area goals to reduce VMT
  • Provide affordable housing
  • Create an incentive, such as a tax credit, for developers to meet these goals

Farmer concluded the session by reiterating the need for good, sound planning. Planners need to be aware of opportunities, such as the stimulus package and climate change legislation. Planners need to reach out to business and political leaders and educate them on these issues. Planners play a critical role in shaping our nation's infrastructure policies, programs, and financing.

Send an e-mail to WebsiteEditor@planning.org for permission to reprint this article.