How might a fractious Congress begin to redress the massive underinvestment in US infrastructure? This was the unspoken question on the table during a panel discussion on “Infrastructure for the 21st Century” held on December 5th at the Kennedy School Institute of Politics’ BiPartisan Program for New Members of Congress. I had a chance to weigh in as co-panelist, the invitation following on the publication of my book Next Generation Infrastructure: principles for post-industrial public works (Island Press 2014).
Moderated by David Gergen, Harvard’s Edward Glaeser gave an historical overview of U.S. public works, and an economist’s perspective of how we can redress our neglect. Robert Puentes from Brookings Institute spoke to various “disruptive factors”—demographic and cultural—that suggest we have to be even more strategic in planning and financing infrastructure, tailoring public-private partnerships and innovative delivery models. The Honorable Rodney Slater (Clinton’s Secretary of Transportation) made a plea for longer-term surface transportation and aviation authorizations, and the kind of benchmarks and alternative tax structures Congress might usefully put in place. I focused on the fed’s role with respect to water and power issues, especially emerging vulnerabilities due to the “energy-water nexus” (profound interdependencies) and what the Congress might do to promote real advancements in efficiency and resilience across the energy-water-waste sectors.
Happily, there was a whiff of optimism, along with many tough questions and diverse viewpoints emanating from this room of legislative newcomers. But the takeaway, for me, was the evident willingness to dig deeply into potential solutions. I had some wonderful follow up conversations with Brenda Lawrence, (MI-14th, D), Mike Bishop (MI-8th, R) and Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11th, D) While personally, the highlight was one-on-one breakfast with Rodney Slater, the whole event, including dinner the night before, was an unexpected honor and great priviledge.