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Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan: Is America ready to level-up?

President Joe Biden has committed to making infrastructure renewal the bedrock of sustainable growth in America. What is the scale of the challenge and is his administration equal to it?

World Built Environment Forum
5 May 2021

Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan is not without historic precedent

Federal stimulus schemes on the scale of that proposed by the new administration are far from typical. There are, though, a handful of instructive bygone examples.

“If we briefly recap history”, notes Francisco X. Pineda, a member of the Biden Infrastructure Policy Committee 2020, “we see that there have been three similarly sized plans. We had the New Deal in the 1930s, worth about a trillion dollars. There was the Federal Highway Act in the mid-50s – again worth about a trillion dollars. And then we had the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009) – though only about 15% of that package was infrastructure related.”

Each of these interventions was born of some sense of emergency. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was designed to kickstart an economy hollowed out by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Eisenhower was inspired by his war experiences in Germany to build a sprawling interstate road network. And Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was written as a remedy for the distress caused by the then-unfurling Global Financial Crisis.

The first 100 days: Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan – Is America ready to level-up?

During his campaign, Joe Biden pledged to rebuild bridges in both the figurative and literal sense. As President, he has committed to making infrastructure renewal the bedrock of sustainable growth in America. What is the scale of the challenge and is his administration equal to it?    

In recent years, American civil life has been marked by comparable turbulence, with 2020 arguably representing a nadir. Aside from the sheer scale of the human tragedy, the COVID-19 pandemic served to amplify existing social and ideological divisions to the point of apparent intractability. And the transition of power that followed Joe Biden’s electoral victory in November seemed at times to be a test of democracy itself. America has given the impression of a union wrestling to hold itself together.

Infrastructure is a proven means of stimulating economic development. Joe Biden could fairly be said to have tapped into a grand, though perhaps under-acknowledged, American tradition. His stated aim of rebuilding bridges seems more than simply literal.

The administration’s definition of infrastructure is broadly drawn…

For some critics, the parameters of the plan extend so far beyond the traditional conception of infrastructure that the word itself has been reduced to a catch-all. The proposals, it must be said, expand on the commonly understood “roads, railways and runways” view. But the fact that the President’s unapologetically social goals should be couched in such a way cannot be a huge surprise. Biden’s campaign slogan was, after all, Build Back Better; a nod to the administration’s view on how access to quality infrastructure links inextricably to social wellbeing and related concerns. For Bryan Tynan, Corporate Vice President of Government Relations at AECOM, that belief is explicitly evident throughout the plan.

“If we look at questions of social cohesion, climate and resilience, they can be addressed by some ‘core’ infrastructure investments outlined here. So, for instance, transit investments supporting the transition to electrification can have a real impact on air quality and equity issues in socially disadvantaged areas. So too, the water investments that are included in the bill – many of which relate to removal of lead piping. I think most people would agree that school infrastructure is infrastructure. So, all of these things address social issues.”  

Transit investments supporting the transition to electrification can have a real impact on air quality and equity issues in socially disadvantaged areas.

Bryan Tynan
Corporate Vice President of Government Relations, AECOM

Resilient infrastructure, as has been said repeatedly on these pages, isn’t simply infrastructure that is resilient to shock. It is infrastructure that builds the resilience of the communities in which it is found. The administration, it would seem, is sympathetic to this position.

…but that breadth of purpose could complicate the legislative and communications picture

“US Congress considers legislation by committees”, explains DJ Gribbin, formerly Special Assistant for Infrastructure to President Trump.

“Infrastructure as defined by the Biden administration is covered by probably a dozen of these committees. So just the way the issue is framed means it will be challenging. And from a communications stand point, the expansive definition will make it difficult to explain to the public why it is that this plan is best for them. It would be remiss not to note that the broad definition also brings a lot of new stakeholders to the party. These are people who would not traditionally be interested in infrastructure, but are interested here. That could provide an additional complication, but something of a possible tailwind for the administration as well.”

Infrastructure’s economic multiplier effect is well evidenced; taxpayers are nonetheless often sceptical about the value of largescale project investments. This is, in effect, infrastructure’s image problem; one that governments around the world encounter frequently. In Joe Biden’s America, a delicately balanced Congress reflects a society in which broad-based consensus remains troublingly elusive. For the President’s plan to have any chance of success, he will need to carefully manage both political and public relations.