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06.03.2009
Editorial: All the Way to the Bank

In a surprisingly little-noticed move on Capitol Hill last month, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut introduced a bill to establish a national infrastructure bank. With a phalanx of support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, labor powerhouses like the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, and Felix Rohatyn—the financier who championed the concept—the bill is a bright ray of hope for architects desperate for both jobs and a new era of federal investment in America’s built landscape.

Known as the National Infrastructure Development Bank Act of 2009, the bill is broadly similar to legislation introduced in 2007 that languished due to lack of White House support. Now, hopes are high for the plan, an Obama administration priority that would revamp the way the government invests in highways, mass transit, water facilities, building efficiency, renewable energy, and other major projects. The idea is to use bonds, loan guarantees, and loans to spur private investment in a process “determined not by politics, but by what will maximize our safety and homeland security; what will keep our environment clean and our economy strong,” as Senator Obama put it in a campaign speech last year.

Among the stakeholders marshaled for the bill’s rollout was none other than Wayne Klotz from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the group whose masterfully produced Report Card for America’s Infrastructure has framed the debate over the nation’s rusting bridges and bulkheads. “While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act represented a major investment in the nation’s infrastructure, it is not enough,” Klotz said in Congresswoman DeLauro’s May 20 press release. “This nation cannot afford to wait much longer to invest significant sums in its infrastructure, and your bill will lead the way.”

Missing from this chorus was another group with more than a passing interest in the matter—the American Institute of Architects. Obviously, the AIA is on record in calling for bold federal action. “We are strong supporters of the infrastructure bank idea, though we haven’t taken a close look at the specific bill introduced on the 20th,” Andrew Goldberg, the AIA’s senior director of federal relations, told AN. “With the challenges facing infrastructure and the lack of funding—both private funding due to the economic crisis and public funding due to government deficits—the infrastructure bank is essential to help get design and construction work moving again.”

We applaud the AIA’s stepped-up lobbying presence on the local and national stages. But we still long for the day when the organization carries the same clout that our comrades have mustered in the engineering world. Whether it’s green buildings, smart growth, affordable housing, or all of these things, the AIA could be a much more forceful advocate both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras. That is especially true of this bill, which lays out $5 billion per year for 5 years, along with $250 billion in capital available from the Treasury if needed. And as the bill’s backers point out, every $1 billion in federal funds invested in infrastructure creates or sustains 47,500 jobs and $6.2 billion in economic activity—no small change for hard-up firms.

Beyond its short-term economic boost, though, the bank is about salvaging America’s tattered social, environmental, and ethical track record. “Our political system pours money into war and tax breaks while relying on deficit finance,” as Rohatyn and co-author Everett Ehrlich wrote last year. “Those in charge then announce that there are no resources left to secure our economic future. The new bank we propose offers one alternative to such a dangerous set of policies.” That’s an idea we should all support—and none more loudly and proudly than the AIA.

Jeff Byles