by Bill Dodge
A telling pattern emerged in the comments of speakers at a recent Brookings Institution conversation, entitled "Memo to the President: Invest in Infrastructure for Long-Term Prosperity".
Pennsylvania's Governor Ed Rendell expressed concern about distributing federal economic stimulus infrastructure funding state-by state. He indicated that it would go to worthwhile projects in Pennsylvania, but would not address the state's primary need, moving freight through the state. That need could only be addressed through joint action with neighboring states, and without federal incentives for interstate cooperation, the funds would be distributed to the usual instate suspects. Deb Miller, Secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation, echoed Governor Rendell by indicating that Kansas often receives more benefit from out-of-state infrastructure projects than instate ones.
Newly-elected Congresswoman Donna Edwards expressed concern about distributing funding local government-by-local government. She indicated support for regional approaches and noted that regional planning organizations lack the authority, and clout, to bring local leaders together to identify the full range of critical infrastructure projects -- not just transportation, but water, sewer, energy, etc. -- much less help them select and implement the ones that are critical to economic recovery. Stuart Rogel, President of the Tampa Bay Partnership, bemoaned the balkanization of regional planning by five transportation planning organizations in the region's seven counties.
Governor Rendell suggested creating a national infrastructure bank to assure that a substantial part of the stimulus funding is invested in priority projects that will not emerge from traditional decision-making processes. Rob Puentes, Brooking's Director for the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, suggested funding federal sustainability challenge grants to help foster regional and even multi-state initiatives; the "outrageous solutions" suggested by Patricia Mulroy, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Finally, Bruce Katz, Brooking's Vice President, noted that the speakers were asked to comment on the merits of investing in infrastructure as part of the economic stimulus program, but instead focused on the governance impediments to selecting the projects that will have the desired impact. Maybe, Bruce suggested, more attention needed to be devoted by Brookings to the how of the federal stimulus program and not just the what.
Running though my mind was the phrase coined by James Carville to keep Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign on message, "It's the economy, stupid." Whereas the Brookings speakers would probably agree that this slogan still has merit, they appear to be suggesting it might now require a complementary one, "It's governance, stupid!"
The implied premise in the speakers' comments is that throwing money at the nation's economic challenges in the same old ways will fail to strengthen our competitiveness in the global economy. If we are to invest in the types of projects that will make each of our regions, and the nation, competitive, we will need to reform the ways we make infrastructure decisions, raise and allocate resources, and hold ourselves accountable for their use.
This will require strengthening "in-between" governance. We are still primarily organized to address challenges at the federal, state, and local government levels. However, our toughest infrastructure challenges often emerge at the regional, interstate, and sometimes international levels. We have addressed this governance conundrum with a variety of ad hoc mechanisms, from regional planning organizations to interstate/international compacts.
If the economic stimulus program is to succeed, we need to empower governance reforms that prod federal, state, and local leaders to rise about their petty biases and select 21st century infrastructure projects. Such as by establishing a national infrastructure bank to support regional and multi-state infrastructure initiatives.
But the challenge of reform is not just one of geography.
We need to set the standards for selecting critical infrastructure projects. Such as collectively addressing all infrastructure needs; pursing energy self-sufficiency, climate change adaptability, and social equity, as part of stimulating economy recovery; using public money to attract private investments; and engendering full participation while precluding "pork". We need to apply these standards to all projects, even the labor intensive ones selected in 2008, such as to winterize public buildings.
We need to offer incentive funding for innovative projects, and innovative decision-making processes. Such as regional and multi-state infrastructure sustainability challenge grants.
We need to provide decision-makers with the information and tools to make reasoned decisions. Such as making federal census data available on a regional and multi-state basis.
We need to hold those responsible for financing, building, and operating infrastructure projects accountable. Such as requiring annual national, state, and regional progress reports on building a 21st century infrastructure system.
We need to launch the preparation of a national 21st century infrastructure plan to guide federal government investments in the infrastructure needed to build the future economy.
Finally, we need to insert these governance reforms in the federal economic stimulus program and offer incentives to state and local governments to do likewise in their stimulus programs. Now!
Bill Dodge assists community leaders and citizens to build their capacity to address regional challenges. He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and can be reached at WilliamRDodge@aol.com.