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A 'New Era' for Infrastructure?

Infrastructure—roads and rails, ports and pipes, bits and bytes—determines how efficiently and rapidly people, goods, and information move within and across our major metropolitan markets, driving their success and prosperity.

It's only slightly hyperbolic to contend that the past 12 months marked a new era in U.S. infrastructure. But after the flurry of activity this past year it's no wonder why some have gone so far as to proclaim "infrastructure is sexy." What a whirlwind year:

The Good: Of course, infrastructure got an unprecedented $126 billion boost by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and later in the president's 2010 budget. The emphasis on transportation, the energy grid, water-sewer, and other areas will strongly influence the built environments of our metropolitan economies. The high-speed rail initiative has captured the imagination of the nation like few others in recent memory as evidenced by the $103 billion in spending proposed in 278 advanced applications from 40 different states.

The Bad: However, analyses are beginning to show that states, in the driver’s seat for national recovery, are not taking advantage of their ability to innovate, targeting money to metropolitan areas, or spending these dollars on transportation alternatives. Fortunately, there is an encouragingly heavy emphasis on improving and maintaining existing infrastructure.

The Ugly: Apart from the stimulus, we've witnessed a very robust and fruitful debate around the (re)authorization of the federal transportation law which is set to expire this September. Yet due to a variety of intractable political, financial, and economic factors, it is looking less and less likely that new, comprehensive transportation legislation will be introduced formally in the near term.

So far a mixed bag for the new era. Now there are those who look at our sputtering economy, hear the political rancor over climate change legislation and the health care debate and wonder how infrastructure can continue to find room among this legislative overload.

In short, we have to.

When Governor Rendell (D-Pa.) took over as chairman of the National Governors Association in July 2008 he made infrastructure the central focus of his year-long tenure. Along with his marquee colleagues Governor Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) and New York City Mayor Bloomberg (I), infrastructure was removed from the backrooms and boardrooms of civil engineers and put on the front burner of our national policy conversations.

They helped reframe the infrastructure conversation from a problem that has to be fixed by more spending, to a solution to the economic, environmental, and energy challenges we face by investing. A fine line perhaps. But through this subtle shift the point is to spend less time obsessed with projects like the Bridge to Nowhere and think instead about what kind of investments and policy reforms we need to ensure our nation can continue to compete globally in the 21st century.

I used to point out in speeches that the word "infrastructure" is more commonly associated with the word "pork" than it is with "competitiveness." But you know what? It's not. At least not according to Google (1.7 million 'hits' vs. 3.8 million).We may be onto something here.