From recovery to resilience: Getting post-COVID infrastructure right

From recovery to resilience: Getting post-COVID infrastructure right
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The coronavirus pandemic is ravaging the U.S. economy. Recovery efforts may present a singular moment to improve the country’s crumbling infrastructure in underserved communities, creating millions of jobs in the process. However, this pivotal undertaking can only succeed if we recognize that the fix for what ails us in infrastructure is not just a question of how much we spend, but how smart we buy. 

Investing in infrastructure is a sound idea, but only if Congress: 

1) appropriately targets funding to accelerate project construction

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2) conditions this funding on better infrastructure maintenance

3) invests strategically in a manner cognizant of different regional needs. 

The nation can begin closing our $4 trillion infrastructure financing gap by giving local governments access to the missing catalyst for shovel-ready and investment-ready projects: predevelopment funding. 

This funding pays for tasks that need to be completed before construction begins, such as architectural and engineering work, economic feasibility studies, site acquisition costs, and permitting. Predevelopment funding typically is hard to obtain, yet can offer significant economic benefits — studies from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Commerce have found that existing predevelopment programs generate $15-17 in economic activity for every $1 of public funds used.

This is why we recommend creating a $10 billion Federal Infrastructure Predevelopment Fund designed to accelerate community-led infrastructure projects. The fund would help fiscally-stressed state and local governments leverage public dollars while scaling up next-generation infrastructure like distance learning systems and resilient microgrids.

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Access to this fund should hinge on commitments to adopt international best practices for life-cycle procurement and better performance. That’s because the nation’s multi-trillion deferred maintenance hole is the direct result of poor asset management. The current way we “buy” infrastructure in the U.S. is broken. Rather than thinking long-term, too often local governments fund the “low-cost” capital bid with no meaningful plan to maintain an asset meant to last 30 to 40 years. That must change. 

Additionally, the Predevelopment Fund would require local sponsors of major infrastructure projects to complete an Infrastructure Risk & Resilience Assessment (IRRA) that ensures life cycle maintenance and other risks are considered, along with alternative project delivery systems. Such assessments not only offer the opportunity to examine areas for improvement, but also pave the way for private and impact capital to co-invest in our communities, at scale. That would be good news both for local communities and for leveraging COVID recovery dollars.

Finally, because local infrastructure needs and resources differ — and two-thirds of U.S. infrastructure is funded locally — the fastest way to scale-up a higher performance U.S. infrastructure system will be through a series of strategic, bottom-up investments. Our recommended framework for deploying predevelopment dollars? Focus regionally. Given the urgent challenges and the on-the-ground realities of how projects are completed at a local level, we need to create a national network of frontline regional acceleration centers. These deployment centers could focus on innovative infrastructure solutions that America needs now, like broadband for remote work and modern water management systems. In order to further accelerate cross-regional innovation, an agile national service center would help break down federal programmatic silos, coordinate shared databases, and provide critical technical assistance across infrastructure modes.

Now is the time to build new resilience into America’s infrastructure systems. This moment for smarter execution should not be wasted. The sheer number of infrastructure needs and community inequities that have piled up over decades demands an overhaul of the nation’s infrastructure investment framework. Federal investment cannot fully fund every community need, but it can facilitate a shift to overcome our infrastructure inertia, by helping distressed communities and regions thrive and innovative partnerships and ideas get off the ground.

Dan Carol is a director at the Milken Institute Center for Financial Markets. Matt Horton is a director at the Milken Institute Center for Regional Economics and California Center.