Even as the U.S. government pumps billions of stimulus dollars into rebuilding aging infrastructure, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) has issued its third annual infrastructure report, which takes the nation to task for not having a comprehensive infrastructure development plan and for not wisely planning the use of stimulus money. The report, " Pivot Point," highlights how China, India, and Europe have invested heavily in modern infrastructure over recent decades, while the U.S. has coasted on its own prosperity, content with patching and repairing its outdated bridges, roads, and other transit and water projects. "We will not continue to be a major world power if we can't get goods in and out of the country in an efficient, productive way," ULI executive vice president for initiatives, Maureen McAvey, tells ARCHITECT. "And the more we waste time in congestion on our roads, in having inadequate ports and inadequate delivery systems, and having congested airports—that's all loss of productivity."
The ULI's hope is for transit systems to be linked across jurisdictions and for transportation and land use to be integrated. Often, "there's no easy way of getting from A to B, and those are all trips on the road," McAvey says, which, in addition to causing congestion, means more carbon released into the air. "It's a stupid way to run a country."
Running throughout the report is the notion that the U.S. is at a tipping point, a moment when the country either shakes off the system it has been functioning under for decades and chooses to look at infrastructure, transportation, land use, and many other issues in a holistic and future-leaning way, or we continue to patch old problems, push solutions to the future, and hope to hold ourselves together. The latter, says the ULI, means the country will slide backward.
McAvey expresses the hope that politicians in Washington understand that there is a problem, and that they are starting to work on solutions—such as the National Infrastructure Bank proposed by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). "It's something [the ULI believes] we could borrow from Europe," McAvey says. "China has a development bank. Japan has a development bank. We can take the best from other countries and plug it in."
Changing how the nation thinks about and deals with infrastructure is going to be expensive, and the ULI report does not shy away from offering myriad suggestions on how to go about funding the fixes, starting with increasing the gas tax, although probably not until after the recession ends. "[Ours] is the lowest gas tax in the developed world, so that will be [one way to fund infrastructure upgrades]," says McAvey. "We will likely see more toll roads and user fees. We may well see congestion charging in some cities. There could be a vehicle miles tax. We'll see public/private partnerships, so that we shift some of the burden to the private sector. There are a variety of approaches, and different communities and different levels of government will choose a mix."
"It's like having a number of arrows in your quiver," McAvey concludes. "There will be a mix of funding solutions—none of which will be popular."