The Biden Administration has the right idea overall in terms of a Go Big infrastructure initiative, but three months into the process, it is leaking political capital at a mortal pace.
This happens with every Administration, but President Joe Biden and team promised that it wouldn’t happen this time—and it is still not too late. Industry must step in and guide the process toward the overall goal—and it is urgent—to develop key building blocks of a sustained, well-financed and world-class initiative.
Bipartisanship is the first and foremost of these fundamental building blocks. Infrastructure just isn’t a Democratic or Republican thing; it is America’s pride and joy, our engine of opportunity and economic growth, and the real face of our country!
In my new book Vision: Our Strategic Infrastructure Roadmap Forward, I highlight a handful of key themes that are critical to a successful infrastructure initiative. These I identified by examining successful programs around the world built on having the right players at the table, robust funding, disruptive leadership and proactive policy—with digitization, electrification and innovative technology also as vital components.
What great infrastructure does—and why each of these themes is critical—is that it brings people together around hope for better lives, increased work opportunities and a vision of a more prosperous future.
My favorite current example of the power of great infrastructure is the magnificent new Moynihan Station at New York City’s Penn Station rail hub. I visited it last week. The station is set to catalyze revitalization of its aging west Manhattan neighborhood. Infrastructure investment creates shared public good—which we can see, touch and benefit from—and it gives us a tactile measure of our progress in creating that better future.
Looking at these key themes, it is valuable—and very urgent—to insist that the infrastructure community be at the table to maintain focus and breathe life into the Biden initiative.
Pay It Forward
It is an unforced error that slows everything down to focus on taxes as a way to pay for long-term infrastructure investment. The president is recognizing that fact.
Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers points out, In a recent article, one of several dangers of that approach—that “current spending financed by future taxes might further stimulate an already overheated economy.” One way to unite around the funding issue, and to engage everyone, would be to bring our savings to the fight by directly deploying some of the $30 trillion in pension fund assets to pump-prime strategic investments.
As much as 50% of the Biden infrastructure plan, from schools and high voltage transmission to VA hospitals and electric car charging stations, already is the province of private investment. I have yet to see a government owned or financed charge station for my Tesla and have suffered no charging challenges to date.
Successful infrastructure initiatives shift the landscape, creating a new model for getting projects done.
It’s not clear that the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better program does that yet, although it is evolving in the right direction. Paradigm change, when driven by visionary leaders, galvanizes action.
Public sector executives, the finance community and business leaders—specifically in engineering and construction and including technology innovators—all come together in a "golden triangle" to get things done. They build success-based relationships that last for years, even a lifetime, and gain strength as they move from one successful project to the next.
New Rules of the Game
A real initiative requires new rules of the game and a game-changing policy direction. The objective of policy must to create trust around project funding and execution. The Biden infrastructure initiative is not strong enough in this area.
Users and taxpayers need to believe that projects will be built on time and on budget. Small, large and especially institutional investors need to know that approvals will be efficient and predictable. And everyone needs to trust that all those who are involved are highly competent, practical and committed.
The right policies, whether focused on environmental impact, stakeholder equity or project productivity—or all three—work because they get done, maximizing visible public good.
Innovation is paramount in any modern industry but absolutely critical for next-generation infrastructure. Digitization and electrification of everything—from haptics to lidar to smart radar—drive new levels and types of performance for both greenfield and brownfield projects.
A bridge may last for 30 years, but the 5G software that must enable autonomy will be updated every quarter. How does the Biden Initiative address and facilitate that level of innovation?
To create the new reality, industry must step in to put some necessary spine into the bipartisanship ideal. The drift to politicization creates three toxic realities: the long view so critical for infrastructure is lost; the bureaucracy, with its capacity to mortally gum up the works, is confused; and investment channels that are so allergic to election cycle uncertainty, dry up. We cannot allow this.
Call to Action
We need mechanisms on the public side that propel ready two-way conversation and rapid action—based on real authority.
Think about the thousands of decisions that will be made—by governors, private executives, municipal officials and citizens—to implement an infrastructure initiative. While we are on the cusp of the greatest industrial revolution since the advent of the internal combustion engine, politicians need help from infrastructure experts in making these decisions.
There should be a Strategic Infrastructure Office created immediately in the White House that brings everyone together, provides disruptive leadership, shapes policy, drives innovative financing and really listens to what industry and all stakeholders have to say. Without it, the administration’s effort to construct a U.S. infrastructure program that is sustained, globe-leading and able to truly reshape our economy will not reach the potential that all of us envision.
Norman Anderson is chairman and CEO of CG/LA Infrastructure, a Washington, D.C.-based strategy and project development firm. He is a frequent speaker on global infrastructure issues and author of the just-published book Vision: Our Strategic Infrastructure Roadmap Forward, available now in print and digital versions at Amazon and other outlets. Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org