The Infrastructure panel, at the Back in Business Forum, was moderated by Fawn Johnson, correspondent for the National Journal, with the participation of Eric Blumenaur, U.S. House of Representatives (Oregon), Lisa Gordon, Chief Operating Officer, Atlanta BeltLine Inc., and Thomas F. Jensen, Vice President of Global Public Affairs, UPS.
The majority of the panel revolved around freight and mass urban transit, with a spotlight on the Atlanta BeltLine project, which encompasses a vital revitalization effort in the city of Atlanta with a combination of rail, trail, greenspace, housing and art. The project seeks to connect over 45 neighborhoods and put the city in the path for 21st century economic growth and sustainability. Two highlights from the project, and what seemed to be the overarching theme of the panel were, 1) innovative funding initiatives and 2) the power and importance of civil society in the decision making process.
Blumenaur highlighted the importance of giving the community a broad vision of what public transit can provide e.g. economic, social, and health benefits, once this vision is given to the public you open the door to what is a very innovative and forward thinking community, “they’re practically civil engineers,” he said. Gordon also highlighted the importance of community engagement; the BeltLine project was possible due to extensive outreach, once the public had the information in their hands, the overwhelming response was a positive one. Jense mentioned how large and small businesses are beginning to ask what they can do to fix transportation issues, they want to get involved, he mentioned, “[the] notion of non-traditional stakeholders involvement is key, civil society is able to make strong arguments in the policy realms.” Overall the panel agreed that there is a general consensus for the promotion and development of efficient public transit and freight development; congress is at fault for not recognizing this, and for not creating a comprehensive holistic vision for transit and freight infrastructure.
On the financial models, Atlanta’s BeltLine project was highlighted as inventive and original. Gordon stressed that through effective partnerships the project was able to raise; $42 million from business and philanthropic grassroots, $78.8 million was collected from bonds based on future property developments along the corridor, while $600 million was collected from taxes; other money came from federal and state grants. Other innovative ideas included utilizing federal grants, but leveraging far more with the private sector (this is how the Portland rail was funded), the paradigm needs to shift towards developing a way to capture and capitalize the economic development spurred by UMT projects.
An audience member asked the panellist where the US stood in infrastructure on a scale from one to ten (ten being the best), Gordon and Jense gave the country a meager 1-2, citing a need for restoration and re-investment, Jensen said, “we’re loosing ground on system reliability, and we’re loosing the seeds for the future,” Blumenaur, had a more positive outlook giving a 5-6, stressing the fact that we still have a functioning system, we just need to re-develop it.