When you have a hammer…

There is a fine line between policy that is so narrow that it stifles innovation and proposals that are too general to mobilize any real action on the ground. The White House infrastructure agenda rolled out this week wanders alarmingly between these two extremes without ever striking a balance.

Any successful federal infrastructure policy needs to acknowledge that infrastructure is a “big tent” issue. The more money that is dangled out there as an incentive to motivate new infrastructure investment, the more we will see very different types of projects suddenly called infrastructure.

Some of these are important ideas that can help us reframe critical services in new ways, like climate-smart flood infrastructure, natural infrastructure, or green stormwater infrastructure, which can include everything from urban wetlands and roads with porous pavement to green roofs on buildings. Others are less helpful sweeping uses of the term ‘critical infrastructure’ designed to benefit or protect specific industries.

The latest announcement from the White House earmarks $15 billion in funding for “transformative projects.” Let’s put that in perspective. Seattle’s new waterfront, which includes both seawall and tunnel infrastructure, has some incredible innovations like salmon migration corridors and public recreational spaces. The project is expected to cost upwards of $4 billion dollars when all said and done. That’s almost a third of the proposed amount for a single project in one city.

Source: White House Fact Sheet on infrastructure spending (released June 8, 2017).

Billions of dollars sound like a lot of money, but when it comes to infrastructure, after decades of underinvestment, it’s not. Any new federal money will go fast. Every region and industry has its wish list. As the old saying goes: when you have a hammer, all the world looks like a nail. Unless there is some discipline about how infrastructure is defined and funds are allocated, any new money will be a drop in an already leaking bucket.