A critical component of a successful national infrastructure plan — which is currently missing from our country’s policy debate and even the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan — is discussion of the massive benefits to be gained from completed infrastructure projects. If we are going to double our level of infrastructure investment, from 1.3 percent of GDP to something close to 3 percent, then we are going to have to look to the benefits of that investment. Let’s focus on what communities and the next generation will get — and why disciplined investment today will deliver those benefits.
Cities and states — entities that own 86 percent of our $9 trillion in infrastructure assets — are in no position financially, or in terms of expertise, to bear the entire burden of fixing old projects or investing in new ones. They need help. Government used to have all the money, but now the money is in pension funds — in our democracy, how do we move those resources into long-term infrastructure investments?
An answer is to change the focus. The infrastructure moment has not passed, it is not too late — and is, in fact, easily within our reach. There are already at least 50 U.S. infrastructure projects that are ready to advance and are mostly private — requiring just under $300 billion in new investment — and capable of creating more than 600,000 good direct jobs in nearly 50 percent of congressional districts.
Focusing the national infrastructure discussion on the benefits that investments in the right projects create — health, mobility, opportunity and productivity and its offspring, a positive view of a bright and hopeful future — should get everyone involved in creating those benefits.
Think again of John Winthrop’s shining “city on a hill,” building and creating something that we are all a part of, we are all proud of and that the world will admire.
Three areas are critical to creating a U.S. “infrastructure renaissance.”
First, focus on infrastructure as a public good. Creating the future that we want means that — aside from projects being rapidly approved and efficiently managed — we must design our projects to maximize opportunity creation for all of us. Take one example, a transit project designed around maximizing small-business opportunities. Singapore’s Orchard Station has 67 stores, while the D.C. Metro goes the other way and has no stores in its stations. One system constantly injects life — and private-sector ideas and cash — into the city-state’s mobility machine, covering 30 percent of operational costs, while the other declines and loses ridership.
Second, focus on creating benefits. What if we competed to prioritize projects based on a robust calculus of the benefits that they would create, from jobs to mobility, and from business creation to something akin to what Steve Jobs called “insanely great” benefits. If we think hard about users — who they are, what they want — and what technology might make possible, then we tap into an endless source of creativity.
This can be anything from the soaringly magnificent World Trade Center’s Transportation Hub — a project of transcendent symbolism that reminds us that we can and must be great — to modern airports, like Dubai or Singapore, that become destinations, extraordinary employment creators and symbols of possibility.
Third, focus on the creative power of citizen/users. If infrastructure is a public good that maximizes benefits, then users need to be fully engaged in the process. They need real power — power in Bertrand Russell’s sense of “the ability to produce intended effects.” Taken from “New Power,” the recently published book by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, this should be the North Star of infrastructure decisions going forward: People will not trade public ownership for elite private ownership (which they see as synonymous with exploitation), but they will trade it for power over design, management, future decisions and actual ownership.
We aren’t going to double our level of infrastructure investment relying on others; there is too much urgency for that. It is clearly our fight, and we have the wealth of ideas, of willpower and of resourcefulness, especially including the financial resources of our pension funds, to get this done.
Think of what it would mean for our country and our communities if we raise our infrastructure investment level to 3 percent of GDP and maintain that level through 2025 — it would mean nearly $3 trillion in new investment, the best infrastructure in the world and extraordinary opportunities for all of us — and for two generations to come.
• Norman F. Anderson is CEO and president of CG/LA Infrastructure Inc.