BUILDING FOR THE ALL: Infrastructure Standards and This Once-in-a-Generation Governing Moment

May 16, 2022
by Jerry Maldonado and Judith Dangerfield

From how we get to work to what our neighborhoods look like to the water we drink, our infrastructure is the backbone and fabric of our society. Well-designed, safe, resilient, and accessible public infrastructure is the foundation of a thriving community. Yet, not every community has this foundation today, and as such, the funding, development, maintenance, and distribution of these investments are a reflection of the continued need for equity in our values and priorities as a country.

Previous infrastructure investments shaped the world we see around us today and reflect the economic and political interests and inequalities of their time. These investments have a multigenerational impact on people and places, and we are still feeling the inequitable effects of the last generations’ infrastructure decisions. 

Today, the federal railroad system occupies the tribal lands of the First People of the American Plains. Neighborhoods that were once redlined by public policy now have the hottest temperatures in American cities. And Black and Brown people are more likely to live near polluting facilities that rely on federal highways to move their goods. Unequal investments in public infrastructure engineered the rich and poor places, segregated spaces and ethnic enclaves, and places of privilege and disadvantage.

Transforming this status quo and liberating the full potential of our diverse communities requires that we reckon with and repair the harms of historic development patterns across the country. It requires that we mobilize our collective resources towards a new vision of an inclusive and equitable multiracial America. 

Reckoning, Repair, and Transformation through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

Signed into law in November 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) represents $1.2 trillion in infrastructure investments in the American landscape—the largest and most comprehensive in our nation’s history. 

This investment, in this moment, represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the government to prioritize federal infrastructure investments that will acknowledge and redress the environmental and racialized harm of the past.  

Moreover, recognizing that our actions today will determine the lived experience and quality of life for generations to come, this is the moment to change the trajectory of history through transformative investments in our nation's built environment. This is the moment where we must build a future where all of our communities can thrive. In this moment, we must focus our infrastructure efforts strategically and intentionally on the implementation of federal investments that meet the needs for reckoning, repair, and transformation of the built environment of our nation. 

Unfortunately, we also recognize that the majority of the resources that will be deployed through IIJA will be distributed through the same state-based, regional, and local power structures and mechanisms that shaped previous generational investments in infrastructure. These structures include formula funding and block grants to states, metropolitan planning organizations as intermediaries, a series of codes of federal regulations, federal acquisition regulations and OMB, and USDOT and EPA circulars.  And so, we find ourselves in this moment attempting to rebuild the foundation of American places using many of the same systems, mechanisms, and structures that created the harm of the past. 

So how can we ensure that this generation’s investments generate a different set of outcomes? How do we ensure that past harms aren't replicated and that public funding and private investments are accountable to all communities?

We can set new standards for the America we want to build—standards that can act as the legally enforceable foundation of truly just investments in all places for all people in the American landscape.

Setting new infrastructure standards

Just as actors in the past built what we have now, we can build something different. And in this moment—where we have regulatory standards that encourage and enable the participation of private corporations in the development of public infrastructure—we need to create new regulatory standards that encourage and enable equity through the repair of harm and the transformation of marginalized places into thriving, well-resourced communities.

At PolicyLink, we define standard-setting as the development of a rational framework of rules, norms, values, and accepted measures of compliance that is generally accepted across the spectrum of public and private institutions, legally enforceable, and expected by the public at large. 

By definition, standard-setting transcends government and includes regulatory requirements for both public agencies and private corporations and investors. More importantly, standard-setting transcends policy and advocacy as it combines public acceptance, expectation, compliance, and legal enforcement—all in a single, powerful strategy.  

Consider Medicaid and Social Security as examples of accepted standards. These policies represent the standard of a social contract between the government and the people that continues to withstand the challenges of the political economy. The standard is that we work until old age and pay our taxes in return for income security and health care. This standard is accepted, expected, and enforceable. 

Building on this example, in this governing moment, we have the opportunity to create a new contract between the government and the governed. We have the opportunity to create a community contract for infrastructure development—a set of rules and norms for distributional equity in the building and rebuilding of public infrastructure assets. We have the opportunity to create standards that are generally accepted, legally enforceable, and expected by the public for the creation of vibrant, sustainable, resilient, and just places. 

Standards are more than simply policies that can be amended and rescinded. Standards are more than rights that are all too often violated. Standards are the regulatory realization of our expectations as the people of the US Though it will take time, intentionality, and a compelling narrative around the public good, with this work, standards can foster change that lasts generations.

Over the next few months, PolicyLink will be partnering with a broad range of partners to advance a set of standards to guide the equitable implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. We—and our partners across the country—recognize that this is a critical governing moment that must be seized to support the creation of thriving, resilient, and just places for generations to come.