Listen carefully when you hear a politician or a lobbyist speak of “infrastructure.” To really mean anything, that big ugly word has got to be qualified. “Gone are the days when federal infrastructure spending was measured in highways, bridges and ports,” as Steven Mufson, a reporter for The Washington Post, rightly points out.
For that matter, gone also are the days when no one much used the word “infrastructure” at all to refer to roads and bridges (and, yes ok, ports, too).
I looked it up. A decade ago, many of us in the industry press we’re writing feverishly about what was needed to fix America’s crumbling roads and bridges. Or, because writers don’t like to repeat themselves, what was required to repair the country’s broken highways. Back then, “infrastructure” was still a decidedly wonky term, appearing mostly in think tank reports and uttered at insider conferences.
The word isn’t at issue. Its vagueness is. Roads and bridges and ports are components of transportation infrastructure. Note the qualifier: “transportation.” That modifier is crucial because “infrastructure” bandied about unadorned is a murky term that can cover everything from roads and bridges to public water supplies and high-speed data networks.
President-elect Trump made it known right after the election that he aims to spend big on infrastructure--- stating he would send a $1 trillion plan up to Capitol Hill in his first 100 days. “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” Trump said in his victory speech.
Much less clear is what that Trump infrastructure plan will spend on what. Also nebulous is how much of it will be funded by public dollars or private investment.
The only published specifics on Trump’s approach policy appear on his campaign website. And the description of what may get funded goes far beyond roads and bridges. What’s described is an “America’s Infrastructure First” policy that would support “investments in transportation, clean water, a modern and reliable electricity grid, telecommunications, security infrastructure, and other pressing domestic infrastructure needs.”
Another bullet point under Trump’s infrastructure tab calls for creating “thousands of new jobs in construction, steel manufacturing, and other sectors to build the transportation, water, telecommunications and energy infrastructure…”
Toss around a spending number that big, and businesses, interest groups, and of course politicians will come out of the woodwork to try and chomp on as big a piece of it as they can haul away.
In his piece, reporter Mufson relates that during a Bloomberg News event this week, Mrinalini Ingram, Verizon’s vice president of smart communities, suggested spending on “Verizon networking technology embedded in LED street lights and blue-light kiosks where pedestrians in danger can call police.” At the same event, Washington D.C. Muriel Bowser remarked that she “would like us to think about affordable housing as part of our critical infrastructure.”
To be sure, infrastructure has become a loaded term. Mufson hit the nail squarely on the head (or on the roadway, railbed, lamppost, etc.) when he observed that, “The varied proposals highlight a chief challenge in drawing up any plan: One person’s critical infrastructure is another person’s bridge to nowhere.”