In the frenetic world that is Washington these days, one proposal’s bipartisan support endures: a massive new investment in infrastructure. Plans have already circulated, with a potential price tag of up to $1 trillion; a document prepared for President Trump by the National Governors Association lists 50 high-priority projects at a cost of $140 billion. As recently as last Friday, there were further murmurs that the new administration was readying to unveil new ambitions.
The political discourse has tended to race ahead to the question of how projects will be paid for, but perhaps the most important consideration is what type of infrastructure will best serve the nation in the long run.
Few other government interventions have the impact on people and place than infrastructure. For cities, and the environment, that impact has not always been good. The interstate highway act served a laudable purpose nationwide, but prompted blight as freeways tore through neighborhoods—or, yes, we’ll use the term inner cities—facilitated white flight, and permanently established car-centric development patterns that have had serious environmental ramifications.
To that end, we’d like to suggest going back to the future—as a way of getting it really right this time.
Over the last three centuries, the American landscape has been transformed by massive public and private works projects and technological innovations intended to facilitate increased commerce, improved public health, and expanded economic development opportunities. Cities and towns have been linked with navigable waterways and railroads, and likewise equipped with harbors and port facilities, water, sewer, and sanitation systems, power production, utility grids, and communication systems. […]