Rethinking Our Approach to Infrastructure

February 17, 2010

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Improving U.S. transportation, communication and energy distribution networks is a vital concern, but new reports suggest we rethink how infrastructure projects are engineered before any long-term overhauls begin.

Infrastructure in the United States is in need of serious repair, having received a near-failing grade for several years. Investing in the nation's infrastructure can enhance the transportation network, communications systems and efficiency of power distribution, as well create new jobs during a period of high unemployment. As concern for these projects increases, some reports also advocate new approaches to engineering infrastructure improvements.

According to the 2009 U.S. infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the country's average infrastructure grade is a D, with drinking water, levees, wastewater, inland waterways and roads receiving D- grades. Aviation, dams and bridges each received a D, while energy infrastructure earned a D+. Transit received a D, rail a C- and bridges a C, the highest grade in the evaluation.

The ASCE report states that repairing U.S. infrastructure problems will cost approximately $2.2 trillion over five years, but the stimulus plan's infrastructure budget amounts to roughly $132 billion for addressing infrastructure concerns and finding ways to innovate existing systems.

The shortfall in public expenditure highlights an important aspect of rethinking the infrastructure dilemma: changing the funding structure.

A 2009 report from Ernst & Young and the Urban Land Institute proposes a series of financing innovations. These include preventive repair programs to avert costly breakdowns before new projects are initiated; increases in gas taxes and transportation tolls to shift dependence away from taxpayers and onto users; and building more public-private partnerships to supplement funding.

"Citizens obviously like the idea of having more money in their pockets, but they also want safe, congestion-free roads and on-time trains. Politicians need to explain to voters how assessments for infrastructure not only support jobs, but also sustain economic productivity and a high standard of living," the report explains.

A coalition of political figures, engineers, manufacturers and other stakeholders is advocating for a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) to resolve some of these issues. This bank would help bridge governmental and private sector infrastructure development efforts, as well as generating and managing investments for a nationwide infrastructure system.

"Whether we're talking about billions of dollars lost as a result of traffic each year or billion gallons of water lost through leaky pipes, failing infrastructure has a negative impact on the checkbook and quality of life of each and every American. Despite this, we have continued to woefully under-invest," Andrew Hermann, chair of the ASCE's infrastructure advisory council, said in an announcement last month from the pro-NIB coalition. "Creating an Infrastructure Bank, however, will provide a dedicated source of finance and funding tools we can use to support projects of regional and national significance."

Providing secure funding for infrastructure work may help stabilize the economy as a whole. According to a recent report from the Milken Institute, every $1 billion dollars invested in one of 10 major infrastructure projects could create more than 25,000 jobs.

"Looking at impacts over a three-year period, all the projects combined will create 3.4 million construction- and R&D-related jobs, which will generate an estimated $147 billion in earnings. Accounting for ripple effects across other sectors, the total impact will add up to 10.7 million jobs, $420.6 billion in earnings and $1.4 trillion in output," the report claims.

However, in order to meet the broad range of infrastructure challenges, new funding strategies may need to be combined with innovative engineering and design approaches that focus on long-term results.

"[M]oney is not the only area where the nation's infrastructure falls short," the New York Times reports. "Our roads and bridges are crumbling, yes, but most are also mediocre, reflecting neither engineering sense nor architectural sensibility."

To shift and rethink the focus of infrastructure work, Popular Mechanics recommends targeting the following areas for improvement:

  • Upgrading air traffic control — Increased air travel is anticipated in the near future, and finding a way to implement new radar, cockpit and satellite tracking technology will be a needed boost to aviation infrastructure.
  • Repairing water systems — Dozens of states are at risk of water shortages in the next five years, and repairing deteriorated municipal pipe systems may save billions of gallons.
  • Establishing a smart grid — Reducing power disruptions and providing more efficient energy distribution using sensors, control systems and other smart grid technology can be significant improvements in the energy network.
  • Connecting high-speed rail — Providing a more efficient public transit system will help alleviate traffic congestion, reduce energy consumption and, in the case of high-speed rail, enable faster travel between destinations.
  • Rehabilitating roads and bridges — U.S. roads and bridges require large-scale rebuilding and repair to make the transportation network more functional, but creating more efficient, wide-lane roadways can be as beneficial as maintenance efforts.

To emphasize the importance of national infrastructure, President Obama designated December as Critical Infrastructure Protection Month. To raise awareness of the country's infrastructure needs, the president explained that these institutions are "so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, public health or safety."

This means that finding new engineering solutions for infrastructure, including shifting focus onto preventive maintenance, monitoring, "smart" technologies and a broader funding network, is more important than ever before.


Proposed Solutions to Improving Infrastructure

Stimulus Funds' Impact on Infrastructure Upgrades

"Smart" Infrastructure on the Rise


2009 Report Card for America's Infrastructure American Society of Civil Engineers, March 25, 2009

Infrastructure 2009: Pivot Point by Jonathan D. Miller Ernst & Young and the Urban Land Institute, April 20, 2009

Coalition Urges Congress and Obama Administration to Create National Infrastructure Bank Building America's Future, Jan. 20, 2010

Jobs for America: Investments and Policies for Economic Growth and Competitiveness by Ross DeVol and Perry Wong Milken Institute, Jan. 26, 2010

Bridging the Gap by Henry Petroski The New York Times, June 8, 2009

5 Smart Ways to Fix American Infrastructure Now: Analysis by Davin Coburn Popular Mechanics, June 2009

Presidential Proclamation — Critical Infrastructure Protection Month The White House, Dec. 2, 2009

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