House majority adopts Smart Growth America’s unified approach to infrastructure

The House majority’s recent infrastructure proposal finally recognizes what Smart Growth America has been saying for years: We’ll never be able to build and sustain healthy, prosperous, and resilient communities without a unified approach to transportation, climate, water, land use, and community development. This is a smart first step, but the details will determine whether or not these investments improve the deep inequities in America, or just make them worse.

Over the last couple of years we’ve lost count of the numerous infrastructure proposals that have been announced and then slowly evaporated as Infrastructure Week became more a state of mind than a specific policy-making week on the calendar. But times could be changing: The five-year, $760 billion infrastructure plan released by the House Democrats last week goes far beyond just transportation and into community development, land use, water and wastewater, broadband, and many other topics. In the House majority’s words (pdf), their Moving Forward Framework aims to “get our existing infrastructure working again and fund new, transformative projects that will create an estimated 10 million jobs, while reducing carbon pollution, dramatically improving safety, and spurring economic activity. It’s infrastructure investment that is smarter, safer, and made to last.”

Smart Growth America is incredibly encouraged to see an infrastructure proposal that recognizes these issues are inextricably connected and attempts to address them all at once, though it is not a full bill or final package meriting a verdict yet. While this proposal includes a lot of broad principles (and also many specific programs and funding), there are a few notable things about their approach that Smart Growth America wants to highlight:

We must indeed take a holistic approach to investing in infrastructure

At its core, smart growth is about ensuring that our solutions work in concert with one another, not against each other. As I wrote last year in the wake of the nonstop infrastructure talk

We need to legislate, make policy, and think in a more interconnected fashion. It will be a waste of time to attempt to slash emissions with our climate policy if we continue to subsidize new highways and encourage yet more driving with our federal infrastructure policy, and incentivize sprawl with our land use policies and federal financing tools.

This means that we can’t address our mounting affordable housing challenges if we don’t address how federal transportation policy prioritizes the needs of wealthy commuters over improving access to jobs and opportunity in areas that are affordable. And we can’t address traffic congestion without rethinking where and how we build new housing, offices or retail—and whether or not we’re truly building them for everyone. 

Consider the LEED green building program which rewards energy-efficient buildings (great!) but largely fails to consider whether anyone can walk, bike, or take transit to get to them. Or using federal housing programs to build attainable housing in places where transportation costs are through the roof because the housing is too far from jobs and services, or lacks basic transit service. That’s one reason why, for the last few years, SGA and our LOCUS coalition of developers and investors have been working hard to expand federal tax credits to incentivize building new attainable housing in walkable areas where demand is high and transportation costs are low—an approach actually included in these principles.

This proposal puts a climate lens on almost every infrastructure issue

Ask a person under the age of 25 what policy issue they care about the most, and you stand a pretty good chance of hearing about the existential crisis of climate change. While we also need proposals far more ambitious than this, we are encouraged that the Moving Forward Framework makes addressing climate change a fundamental consideration throughout all of the various issues: water, transportation, land use, community development, and more.

For example, it acknowledges the climate impacts of building new infrastructure instead of repairing existing assets first, and aims to ensure that new infrastructure is more resilient. But the question is, will a new holistic approach to infrastructure on its own do enough to actually make progress on climate change, fight our persistent inequities, and make communities more livable?

We’ll need far more than just a unified approach to infrastructure—the details matter

As I noted in the above op-ed, the feds already have a holistic national approach to infrastructure: fuel more sprawl everywhere, which is incredibly expensive, inequitable, polluting, and unsustainable. We’re cautiously optimistic, but far more is required to actually ensure that the House framework will support smarter, more equitable growth on the ground.

For example, we agree that more money for wastewater infrastructure is sorely needed, but are we using that money to fuel new sprawl out to virgin land, or to update old infrastructure that’s already serving an existing community? Perhaps most importantly, we need everyone at the table to make these decisions—not just those with wealth or political power. Will there be any guardrails to ensure that new water infrastructure goes first to places like Flint, Michigan where people of color are dealing with health and wealth disparities caused by an inequitable system? And perhaps most importantly, will the people in these sorts of places even be at the table when state leaders are determining which infrastructure projects to submit for funding? 

Those are vital questions to answer as these principles get turned into tangible policies and programs. The devil is in the details, but Smart Growth America will fight like crazy to hold Congress’ feet to the fire and calibrate these programs to support fair and equitable growth that gives everyone the same shot at opportunity. We act as a collaborative partner to local advocates fighting on these issues, but Smart Growth America is also needed here in Washington because we work on the federal policies addressing every single one of these issues. 

Our current approach to transportation infrastructure is exacerbating so many of these other issues

We’ll never be able to tackle the climate crisis without a federal infrastructure policy that makes reducing driving a goal. But to even have a shot at that, we’ll need a fundamental restructuring of a 1950s-era transportation program that rewards states for neglecting repair by giving them increasing shares of money when they build new roads instead. It’s time for a major rethink. 

In truth, the Moving Forward Framework is being slightly mischaracterized as a sort of standalone infrastructure bill. The majority of the funding in this House infrastructure proposal is actually for the next five-year reauthorization of federal transportation policy. But there’s progress here. This proposal from the House “could finally represent a long-awaited step toward aligning the billions we spend on transportation with the outcomes people care about: fixing crumbling infrastructure, prioritizing saving people’s lives on our roadways, and connecting people to jobs and daily necessities,” as the directors for our Transportation for America program and National Complete Streets Coalition opined last week.

The House majority is to be commended for proposing a unified, ambitious approach to infrastructure, but this is a call to action for all of us to help ensure that the final product is far better than just a unified plan for business-as-usual. 

We will hold their feet to the fire but we’ll need your help.

Calvin Gladney is the President & CEO of Smart Growth America

Advocacy Complete Streets Economic development LOCUS Resilience Rural Development Transportation