Back when I was a parent for the first time, I fretted over whether to put our child into day care. Would having strangers looking after my firstborn be good or bad for the child, I kept asking?

At some point, my older and wiser brother said to me, “You know good day care is good for kids; bad day care is bad for them.”

As President Biden talks of delivering a massive infrastructure bill to Congress, which would funnel money down to states and cities, I keep thinking of that good advice.

I am an infrastructure booster from way back. I believe it builds the crucial physical improvements that make the country more prosperous, more equitable and more resilient. But we should also remember that infrastructure is like day care. Good infrastructure is good for cities, states and their citizens; bad infrastructure is bad for them.

The clearest example of bad infrastructure is the highway system that governors and mayors, with easy federal funding, forced through the middle of their cities after World War II, destroying neighborhoods, cutting off access to surface streets, and leaving problems that the same cities and states are still dealing with more than a half-century later. Easy money can create as many problems as it solves, if care and thought are not taken.

So which infrastructure projects are good, and which are bad?

There’s no clear consensus here. On transportation questions, there are road people and transit people. When it comes to broadband access, there are those, like myself, who favor direct public or cooperative ownership, and those who want to empower and subsidize private companies. There are discussions now about who should be paying for development of driverless electric cars, clean power and smart road networks.

But even if we acknowledge policy differences and choices, there are principles that can help us end up with good infrastructure, rather than the opposite. 

First of all, cost matters. The evidence is pretty clear now that we pay several times more than other advanced nations to build transit infrastructure, particularly tunnels, and possibly highways as well. It appears we pay too much to build public parks.

Second, time matters. We still get estimates for infrastructure projects whose construction stretches into decades, when it should be a few years. Time relates to cost. Adding time makes projects more expensive. 

Third, connections matter. Whether it’s a light-rail line joining up to a bus line, or an interstate exit linking to a town, the connections between infrastructure systems are important. High-speed rail lines need to intersect seamlessly with the cities they serve. Infrastructure can’t be designed in a vacuum. Urban planners and designers should be at the top of the infrastructure food chain, so that transportation and other departments work for comprehensive visions.

Fourth, design matters. Western Europe has been erecting light, airy bridges for decades, while we have continued to build heavy concrete slabs. This is changing, but we lag behind other countries in the design quality of everything from bridges to subways.

Finally, ownership matters. Even the best-designed and swiftly built infrastructure will turn bad if we give one or two private companies total control over them. As we use private companies for broadband, cable, telephones, data management and the power that runs our homes, we need to remember this. When we can’t (or won’t) have public systems, then the private ones need to be carefully managed.

These goals or principles are themselves interconnected. To put it all together, we take too long to build infrastructure that costs too much, is clunkily designed, is tied too closely to private profit and does not play well with other systems. There are ways to address these challenges, but doing so will take consistent, thoughtful attention.

President Biden has appointed former mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary. Buttigieg has said that he will push a “fix-it first” strategy, which is a good principle, even if it is not popular with the private development community that profits from new construction. Our cracked roads and rusting bridges are evidence of the urgent need for repair. And some needed capital improvements, such as the decaying train tunnels and bridges on the Northeast corridor train lines, could fit into a fix-it-first strategy.

The point is that as we prepare to spend billions of dollars fixing and building new train lines, roads, bridges, power and Internet lines, we must work to improve the delivery and quality of what we fix and build. We need to raise infrastructure systems that, like children well-cared for, are prepared to meet the future.


Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.