The country desperately needs a 21st-century national infrastructure plan to emerge from its deep recession and ensure future prosperity, according to Infrastructure 2009: A Pivotal Point, a publication released last week by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young.

The report calls for overhauling federal infrastructure policy and integrating land use and infrastructure planning at all levels of government. Such a plan could result in greater leveraging of public investments; an improved mobility network that adequately supports desired economic growth; and the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions through reduced auto dependency.

“The ongoing economic crisis has pushed the nation to a pivotal point—either the country can risk further productivity decline, transportation congestion, and potential catastrophes from dilapidated systems, or it can develop new networks and land use models to accommodate the expected 100 million in population growth over the next generation,” the report states.

The report offers a four-pronged approach to improving the country’s infrastructure policy:

1. Create a national strategy. A comprehensive strategy is needed that accounts for population growth, rapid urbanization, and declining mobility throughout urban areas. New transport networks must interconnect more efficiently to move people and goods through increasingly congested global pathway cities. Innovative new transit schemes will help reduce car dependency, prevent bottlenecks in commercial centers, and decrease pollution.

2. Plan holistically. Goals to reduce congestion, cut carbon footprints, decrease foreign oil dependency, and ensure adequate water supplies require integration of transportation, energy, and environmental programs with land use planning and housing policy. Where people choose to live and work—and how they travel—will often be determined by the cost and convenience of various transport options.

3. Consolidate government management. Federal, state, and local governments must restructure agencies responsible for transportation, housing, water, and energy to manage and execute a coordinated infrastructure policy. States should break down silos between transportation agencies and local land use authorities to formulate long-range regional plans that tie into a national infrastructure agenda.

4. Change funding approaches. More of the funding burdens for new infrastructure networks and repairs must shift to users from taxpayers, since government coffers alone will never be sufficient to cover costs. Among the new funding sources: higher gas taxes, greater use of highway tolls, charges for vehicle miles traveled. The report also supports establishment of a national infrastructure bank—drawing on the success of the European Investment Bank—to help finance national networks and attract more private capital.

The report does acknowledge that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s allotted $132 billion for ad hoc infrastructure projects is a good start to boosting the economy through the creation of jobs. The report, however, adds that the legislation falls short of developing a necessary national strategy aimed at future growth.

“It’s encouraging to see the federal government take an interest in infrastructure issues for the first time in a generation,” says Maureen McAvey, ULI’s executive vice president of its initiatives group. “But the very real need for policy changes is getting muddled in the rhetoric about creating jobs, reviving the economy, and fixing potholes. The jobs program is not an infrastructure strategy. Our nation has an unprecedented opportunity to craft a definitive reengineering strategy. It must not be squandered.”