Rebuilding and Renewing America: Highlights from a day of forward thinking - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Rebuilding and Renewing America: Highlights from a day of forward thinking

Investment in our nation's water, energy, and transportation infrastructure will be one of the first priorities of the new Obama administration. At MPC's recent conference on the subject, experts from throughout the Great Lakes megaregion identified priorities and outlined a better process for making investment decisions.

Some 250 infrastructure experts from the Great Lakes region and greater U.S., gathered Nov. 17 in Chicago for “Rebuilding & Renewing America, Infrastructure Choices in the Great Lakes Megaregion,” an America 2050 Forum, co-hosted by MPC and New York’s Regional Plan Association.The day’s agenda is available for download, audio recordings of the featured speakers and break-out sessions also are online , courtesy of Chicago Public Radio.


Speakers called for a national infrastructure overhaul and, with participants, began to identify megaregional investment priorities. Featured speakers included Anne Pramaggiore, executive vice president for ComEd; U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore., pictured above) and Thomas Petri (R-Wis.); and the Hon. Peter Gordon MacKay, Canadian Minister of National Defense and the Atlantic Gateway. They all placed a resounding emphasis on the importance of funding the most needed, but not necessarily the most exciting or easiest, projects – both for the sake of the economy and the environment.  Perhaps more importantly, they cited the need to reform the process by which infrastructure investment decisions are made.  By linking investment decisions with national and regional goals – for instance, congestion relief, climate change mitigation, water conservation, and improving quality of life – and setting objective criteria for rating projects against each other, the U.S can start to make better decisions for a more economically and environmentally sustainable future.


During break-out sessions, panelists representing the public, private and nonprofit sectors further defined challenges and priorities facing three of the megaregion's infrastructure issues:


Water: Panelists emphasized the need to promote water efficiency and conservation, and emphasized that water-related infrastructure is badly in need of repair and modernization, and needs to be included in any national infrastructure plan. They called for stronger leadership at the state, regional and national levels, and cooperation across these levels of government, particularly to achieve funding goals. They also suggested expanding green infrastructure projects, and incorporating water conservation into climate change policies.


Energy: Panelists discussed current programs such as Chicago's Climate Action Plan   and the Illinois Smart Grid Initiative , which both aim to increase energy efficiency while addressing climate change. Speakers also touched on emerging renewable energy industries, how to expand wind energy systems, and the role of public-private partnerships in energy production and distribution.  While the infrastructure demands for wind and biofuels expansion are very different, substantial investment is needed to expand those markets.


Transportation: The panel (pictured below) identified theGreat Lakes megaregion’s most pressing transportation needs and federal transportation policies that must be adapted by the new Obama administration to better meet these needs. Panelists agreed the current system reflects 20th Century approaches to land use and urban sprawl, lacks a focus on metropolitan areas (home to the vast majority of the U.S. population), and is based on consumption (as opposed to conservation). Panelists saw opportunities for creative collaboration between the federal government, state agencies, and metropolitan areas, and proposed amendments to current funding policies.


At all the break-out sessions, panelists bemoaned the lack of collaboration between federal, state and municipal governments. A lunchtime panel of regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) leaders picked up on this theme, calling for more direct financing of MPOs by the federal government, increasing coordination between MPOs, and an evolution of the MPO structure to better coordinate transportation, housing, land use, and environmental investment. 


After the conference, guests enjoyed a screening of Liquid Assets, a documentary that explores the history, engineering, and political and economic challenges of the nation's water infrastructure. Stephanie Ayanian, the film’s producer and director, gave a special presentation about the making of the film and a final word on the need for infrastructure improvements.   


MPC and RPA are grateful to the conference’s major funders: the Rockefeller Foundation, Surdna Foundation, and Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Local sponsors of the conference and the film screening were the American Society of Civil Engineers, Builders Association, Christopher B. Burke Engineering, Ltd., CN, Illinois American Water, Illinois Railroad Association, and NIPSCO.


For more information on MPC’s work in this area, please contact Josh Ellis at (312) 863-6045 or


* This article was written by MPC intern Elizabeth Frantz

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