Will Biden’s Infrastructure Proposal Meet America’s Urgent Need?

The Ash Center sat down with Professor Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis and deputy mayor of New York, to discuss the new White House jobs and infrastructure plan

President Biden unveiled an ambitious $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure proposal this week. The plan calls for $621 billion in spending for a variety of transportation initiatives, including funding roads and bridges, public transportation, rail improvements, airports and ports, as well as a bevy of new and expanded electric vehicle incentives. Congress is expected to act on the ambitious legislative proposal in the coming months. Stephen Goldsmith, Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the director of the Ash Center’s Innovations in American Government Program and Data-Smart Cities Solutions project was the Republican mayor of Indianapolis and served as deputy mayor of New York during the Bloomberg administration. The Ash Center asked him to discuss some of the elements of the White House plan.

Ash: What are your initial thoughts of the proposal?

Goldsmith: There's certainly a lot in there. The infrastructure deficits in the country, and particularly in a country's largest and older cities, are quite huge and needs support from the federal government. Now there's a lot in it and the details are complex, but let’s just say that as a rule, I endorse the concept.

Ash:  Do you think the $621 billion specifically earmarked for transportation and infrastructure spending adequately meets the needs of the country’s infrastructure demands?

Goldsmith: There's two ways to answer your question. One is, it's a massive amount of money. And two, it's not enough. We have a couple of decades of disinvestment, but it is more than we can probably consume in the near future anyway, in terms of capacity. But if we can leverage that with more efficient expenditure—and we'll come back to that—then it's really just about the right place to begin.

Ash: When Congress and the White House begin debating the finer points of this plan, what are some of the key areas they should be focusing on?

Goldsmith: In terms of how we spend the money, there are some principles I think that are important. One is that every layer of bureaucracy that we go through increases expense and delays application. So, to the extent that, at least for our larger cities, the money can go to the cities and the regions as contrasted through additional levels of bureaucracy at the state level, I think that would be better.

There's also a lot of obsolescence in the way we conduct these infrastructure projects today. There's a lack of value engineering. There's insufficient smart city investment in sensors and the like. The federal government can encourage cities and states to take proposals from the private sector that propose to do things better, where the infrastructure will last longer, where it's smarter, where it reduces preventative maintenance, all of those things can be incentivized.

Given the way that federal highway dollars are spent, there are massive amounts of regulatory reviews that ensure that by the time the dollar gets to the local government, it's not nearly as efficiently spent as one of the local government's own dollars. We need to say, let’s regulate better without arguing about whether to reduce regulation. Let's take some of this money and stand up a special group that will accelerate the environmental approvals. We don't have to dilute the environmental approvals. We just have to do them more quickly. Let's avoid strangulation as a proxy for regulation, and let's do it better and faster.

This is a different era than 25 years ago. The ability to build smarter and to operate smarter is massively better than it was even five years ago. The funding can help provide smart city platforms; it can be used to build digital layers that a city or a region can use to manage their infrastructure; it can provide the money to acquire the analytics services for operation and the dollars needed to stand up operations centers, which will allow us to ingest those sensor data points and manage with them. And that is all huge. Very few cities and very few states actually have the capacity in terms of dollars to do that. We ought to pay a little bit of attention to the infrastructure necessary to manage the infrastructure and invest in that as well.

We need to decrease the time it takes for funds to get invested in projects, advises Goldsmith. " Let's avoid strangulation as a proxy for regulation, and let's do it better and faster."

Ash: What about the role of equity in determining where and how this new funding might be spent?

Our poorest neighborhoods have the worst infrastructure. It's not fair. It's not equitable. It's not right. It's not moral. The outcomes are terrible. Let's disproportionately repair that infrastructure, which is the oldest and often the worst, and that will have equitable consequences itself.

The same is true with water and wastewater. The older neighborhoods—often the poorer neighborhoods—are where there's most lead in the water. Let's get to those first. Let's prioritize those that have the most positive effect on our health.

There’s money in there for transit, which is badly needed. But in the past, Congress has tended to put a lot of mandates that would say, “You can only buy large buses, you can only utilize drivers that have certain types of contracts.” Let's allow local transit agencies to be more flexible with small vans and subsidies for ride share and the like for underserved communities, because there are lots of folks in urban neighborhoods with bad bus service and long commutes to jobs that don't pay enough. That is the definition of inequity.