The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) calls for historic investments in old mobility—notably, and not surprisingly, a lot of money available for highway development and redevelopment. The bill also calls for investment in new technologies, most notably in the future of electrification across all surface programs (including electric cars and buses). The middle ground is and has always been continued investment in passenger rail, which is a well-known technology that sits at the crossroads of equity, sustainability, mobility, and climate initiatives.
We're still learning the ramifications of the historical, $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) aka the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), but two things are clear:
The IIJA includes a breakdown of solutions by type—surface transportation, public transportation, passenger rail, resiliency, water infrastructure, broadband deployment and access, ports, and aviation. (The full breakdown is here, the White House's summary is here, and the full legislative text is here.) Besides the signal for historic investment in our built environment, the bill also aims to tackle access to broadband internet, combat inflation, and provide good-paying jobs over the next 5 years. The bill has the motive and the means for meaningful and measurable change for everyone.
But will it succeed?
The short answer is, it's too early to tell. Much of the money is authorized, but not appropriated, and most of the money that's been appropriated for FY2022-23 and available to spend hasn't been obligated either by the physical limitation of time or because the rules haven't been written or digested by the tens of thousands of eligible entities for a piece of the giant money pie. Some resources that have been awarded, notably as part of the Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) program, have arrived with mild-to-moderate fanfare; people who care, care a lot, and they're right to. This is money for saving lives and for improving quality of life for thousands of people. By the numbers: 93% (473) of the 510 projects will address plans to build and 7% will fund the construction of already-developed safety plans. The rest of the country is likely oblivious to their tax dollars doled out here, on average about $2.41 per person. But the fact remains that real people will feel real results as a consequence of thinking about safety on our roads.
These awards are important and will lead to meaningful change for people in the winning communities. 163 eligible entities applied for but did not receive funding this round—and they're all "implementation" rather than "planning" grants. What about these folks? There's now $2 billion in shovel-ready projects, seeking funding- which we might consider a net positive, but are possibly rudderless for now. Do these cities and towns wait until next year? What would make these projects more competitive then or for another pool of money?
It's a worthwhile exercise, but the real eye-opening stat hides in plain sight: there are almost 20,000 incorporated places in the United States, all of which could use technical assistance to make their streets safer. How many even knew this $800 million was an option? How many didn't have the capacity to apply? How many didn't know how or even how or who to ask for help?
To answer the "will the IIJA solve the problem it intends to," it would be helpful to know what success looks like, with a signal either from the White House or Department of Transportation. Is it number of applications or number of successful applications or number of projects that break ground each year? Do we celebrate meaningful reduction in CO2 emissions or reduction in road deaths? What is the expected impact of these projects—in health or return on investment? Who wins? How much safer will our streets be after this $800 million investment? How will we know?
It's essential to share success stories (and near-successes and failures) and metrics with everyone else who didn't get a piece of the $800 million (yet). What can Missoula, MT learn from Jacksonville, FL about safe streets implementation? What can NJTRANSIT learn from SEPTA learn from CTA?
We need a national project success database to help track all these projects throughout their life cycles: what works and what doesn't? How do we know?
We have a National Transit Database and National Data Fusion Project. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics keeps a record of what we measure. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) keeps track of data of road deaths and serious injuries. We need a similar way of benchmarking and measuring success on these projects, through a national database. If one exists, I'll admit I'm not familiar with it, and it's my fault. But if one exists, and it's not immediately obvious what and where it lives, then we need a rethink.
It would be enough for there to be a small group of entities that can volunteer to take this task on; DOT should pilot a program as part of the next round of RAISE or INFRA or SS4A. Let's use the information and different processes to tell our stories to one another and cut the game of telephone out of the mix. Communities that haven't ever attempted to apply for federal dollars can draw upon parallel experience to build their own context-sensitive problem statements without a PhD in navigating government programming and 2000-page legislation. It's time to take cooperation more seriously, even in a tremendously competitive environment.
That's the big idea, but what can you do, right now, to better interact with the IIJA and the remaining $1.2 trillion?
First, if you're reading this and you represent a local entity—a municipality, a county, a regional government, or a state, and you haven't yet taken stock of your local problems in an IIJA context, it's time. Dig through your local long-range plans and public meeting notes. Talk to a ton of local folks with no outcome in mind—no idea or solution or alternative yet to a problem that you're not totally clear on. You've got time and a few chances to get this right.
Second, talk to your peers to generate ideas. Find a counterpart in an entity like yours and reach out; if you've already got one, reach back out.
Third, take stock of your assets and liabilities. What can be better leveraged? What's working and what's not working? Why or why not?
Fourth, think through strategy (we can help) . What project comes next and why? How do you sell a new municipal bond or referendum to the taxpayers and voters inside your constituency? Are these ideas addressing your carefully curated problems, or are they simply convenient or available? Are you sure?
There's an uncountable and incomprehensible amount of money available (about $3,600 per American citizen) of money available but it will only be fully leveraged if we're clear about solving the problems—the crumbling infrastructure, the lack of access to the internet, unemployment, inflation—by first fully understanding them and setting expectations and measurable goals, together. We've got room for a trillion new ideas.
Sam Sklar | Sklar@econsultsolutions.com
Sam Sklar is a director with Econsult Solutions, Inc. (ESI). Mr. Sklar has extensive experience in program and project management, planning, and analysis. As an effective communicator, Mr. Sklar has special expertise in many forms of communications strategies. In addition to his duties at ESI, he publishes a growing newsletter, Exasperated Infrastructures, which covers state and federal infrastructure policy.