Where to put some of that "new" federal infrastructure money

One thing is as certain as death and taxes: whenever the federal government proposes new spending, whether realized or not, there will be a veritable chorus of voices informing the public and elected officials about where and how to allocate that spending. This is certainly the case with the incoming Obama Administration’s proposed “largest investment in infrastructure since the National Highway System.” Groups ranging from American Rivers, Save Our Environment, the American Automobile Association, America 2050, and the National Academy of Sciences have all rolled out talking points to guide the new push to dole out something near $600 billion in proposed spending.

The motivations of these myriad groups varies widely.  Some are quite ideological in bent, others may have their hands out, while others are claiming logic is in their favor.  One group that seems to fall into the last category is American 2050, which is composed of a coalition of regional planners, scholars, and policy-makers.  The groups mission is “to develop a framework for the nation’s future growth that considers trends such as:

  • Rapid population growth and demographic change
  • Global climate change
  • The rise in foreign trade
  • Sprawling and inefficient land use patterns
  • Uneven and inequitable growth within and between regions
  • Infrastructure systems that are reaching capacity
  • The emergence of megaregions” (mapped out here)

As Wired Magazine put it, American 2050 has urged everyone with their hands on the purse strings to slow down, take a deep breath, and do the following:

  1. Fix what’s broken – Before we start dumping money and resources into splashy new  projects, repair what we already have. Fixing decrepit bridges and crumbling roads isn’t as sexy as building a high-speed rail line or water treatment plant, but it must come first.
  2. Phase it in – Just as you can’t run a marathon without training, you can’t spend hundreds of billions of dollars without planning. Although there are many “shovel ready” projects we must tackle, Obama must consider the big picture. Establishing clear goals, setting timelines for reaching them and building capacity before digging in will increase the chance of project success.
  3. Go green – Infrastructure projects that keep us chained to fossil fuels won’t do much good in the long run. Yes, we must fix our roads and bridges, but we also must prioritize initiatives that will protect the environment and push us toward sustainable energy and transportation.
  4. Train the workforce – Creating jobs through infrastructure spending is more difficult than simply handing out shovels. America 2050 calls for a methodical job training program to provide workers with the skills they need to do the job and make sure we get top-notch work out of them.
  5. Count – Developing metrics to measure the effectiveness of completed projects will help ensure smart spending on future projects. This one seems like a no-brainer.

All of these points are good ones from the perspective of this specialized perch on the North Coast of Oregon. There is a point to be made however: what about the rural areas outside of those “megaregions”? Tillamook and Clatsop Counties, as well as the rest of the Oregon coast are struggling to meet infrastructure needs, including crumbling roads, strained sewer systems, aging water treatment facilities and abundant problems managing stormwater runoff and floods.  These counties have felt the sting of declines in timber receips, while at the same time seeing a housing bubble burst as beach homes lag on the real estate market for years. And already these communities were distressed. Check out the new OSU Rural Communities Explorer website for more information on the state of rural (and coastal) Oregon.

While there is no arguing that cities with large numbers of constituents can lay rightful claim to much of the money and projects that will help their sagging economies and sagging infrastructure, denizens of the rural hinterlands around them will likely request a share of the pie, especially as these communities now feed the urban centers with in-migrants, while urbanites use the hinterlands for recreation, food and timber production. So the quandary is thus: can $600 billion be spread broadly enough to raise the fortunes of the cities AND the towns surrounding them? Or will we see a further nourishment of the megaregions while the economic losers in the game will continue to be the periphery? Time and politics will tell.

And by the way, water-focused environmental group American Rivers has put out “A New Agenda for Water” that makes some interesting points, a couple of which I disagree with, but many that seem spot on for any water wonks to consider in the newly appointed ranks of the departments of Interior, Transportation, Commerce, Energy, Agriculture, or the Environmental Protection Agency.  Check it out.

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2 thoughts on “Where to put some of that "new" federal infrastructure money

  1. I am no expert in history, but it seems to me, much of the investment made by the USG during the depression years was in rural areas. Our bridge here in Newport was built in 1937. This lesson should not be lost on our new administration. Support to rural communities is not only important, but critical, because unlike megaregions, rural regions simply do not have the funds to do any of this themselves. [btw, thanks for your regular reports. Very insightful and very much appreciated!]

  2. Good point! It is quite true that the New Deal was heavily focused on rural America in the 1930s. One big difference between then and now is that today, most Americans live in urban areas. The Great Depression generated some of that movement. FDR might have been focused on helping to level out the playing field, but in the end, rural America still lost to the cities in the succeeding decades. Let’s hope this century may reverse a little of that trend.

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