Oversite: Ratcheting Up Infrastructure Advocacy
The recent Infrastructure Week event did an excellent job of marshalling a diverse group of organizations, politicians and individuals to support improved funding. Connections repeatedly were made regarding economic benefits such as new jobs as well as improved public health and quality of life. There also was rare bipartisan support that hopefully will lead to action.
Advocacy on Capitol Hill included the topics of transportation, water, broadband and more. The dialog in the media centered on difficulties faced to increase funding as well as the United States’ slipping world standings. On social media, a constant back and forth took place among politicians declaring their support for funding and organizations outlining their advocacy efforts. Many organizations and news outlets came out with detailed reports and in-depth reporting about needed investments, the quest for innovation, and examples of failed as well as successful projects.
Making It Personal
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released a boldly targeted report, “Failure to Act: Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future.” This work builds on the world-famous “Report Card for Infrastructure,” but makes the appeal more personal by relating each family’s cost due to infrastructure underinvestment.
According to the organization, this cost per U.S. family is $3,400 per year over the next decade. The gap could be filled if Congress and states were to invest $144 billion each year over that same timespan. The report breaks down the needed investment to the cost of one cup of Starbucks coffee per day per household to prevent further deterioration and economic loss.
The economic study focuses on closing the gap between what we’re currently spending and what we should be spending. If we spend now what we should to repair and replace failing infrastructure, the cost would be $1.4 trillion between now and 2025. If we don’t make the investment, it would cost the economy $4 trillion due to decreases in efficiency and productivity as well as the loss of 2.5 million jobs.
Tough to Prioritize
The ASCE report singles out transportation as needing investment most. This comes at a time when technology is dramatically changing this sector, with automation leading to mobility services rather than individual car ownership. This development, along with movement toward electric vehicles, puts the gas task woefully behind as the funding mechanism of choice and also may mean the need for less road capacity given that roads could be used more efficiently through automation. These factors make the transportation sector difficult to prioritize without considering future design changes.
Another item highlighted during Infrastructure Week was the issue of our ailing dams. The fact that 70 percent of the 87,000 dams in the United States will be more than 50 years old by 2020 indicates a strong need for investment. River levels and rainfall totals are on the rise, and many of the dams in service aren’t built for today’s conditions. In addition, many of the dams were built in an era of lower risk with far fewer homes and infrastructure in harm’s way should they fail. An investment in repairing our dams would go a long way in terms of averting catastrophic loss and deep economic impacts.
Knowing when and how to invest funds certainly is a large part of the battle, and thankfully there’s a lot of thought and effort being applied to provide this insight. Both of the individuals profiled in this issue are dealing with these changing conditions and sensing technologies to prioritize repairs or replacement.
Some of the more-interesting and inspiring reading during Infrastructure Week was found in pieces giving hope that we would be able to turn things around for our infrastructure and perhaps move far forward with new and innovative solutions.
It’s reassuring that the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act became law this year with a multi-year transportation plan. The Water Resources Development Act, another important piece of legislation making its way through Congress, prioritizes water infrastructure projects such as flood and coastal-ecosystem protection, and investing in aging water and wastewater infrastructure.
We’re in a time of transportation innovation right now, with new means of transport being tried and tested, such as the Hyperloop and more-flexible and multimodal options that allow people to move more efficiently and rapidly in urban settings. The era of connected and automated vehicles could rapidly transform ground-transportation systems with many players—including Uber, Lyft, GM and Google—focused on offering mobility services to the world.
The advent of Infrastructure Week provides an important touch point to assess where we are now compared to where we could be. We’re hoping for stormwater improvements that reduce risk and water systems that improve health rather than threaten it. We’re also hoping to adjust to getting around more rapidly and efficiently rather than battling a broken system.