American infrastructure might have received its second-straight D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers, but at least we’re getting closer to significant momentum and action. With President Trump, members of Congress, and three out of four citizens endorsing new infrastructure investment, now it’s a question of when, not if, the country will launch a new era of transformational projects.
Part of the solution will be finding a way to pay for these projects. This Infrastructure Week, we have a responsibility to also focus on the overall approach.
How should we prioritize investments? How will 21st century infrastructure differentiate itself from the great, yet aging, systems built during the 20th? How we will continue raising the bar for our infrastructure’s safety, effectiveness and sustainability in a country that will shortly reorganize itself into 11 growing mega-regions, add 70 million more people and move 40 percent more freight?
Four principles should guide our overall approach.
First, we need to recognize that our infrastructure needs extend beyond aging roads and bridges. Our energy grid, for instance, has assets that were installed more than a century ago. It’s old, and it’s still largely pre-digital. This is why the grid both struggles to incorporate renewable fuels as they become cost competitive to fossil resources and still remains vulnerable to severe weather. In U.S. manufacturing the average age of factory equipment is older than at any time since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, aging buildings and water systems continue to over-consume energy.
Second, we need to build infrastructure that is not only newer, but that is smarter. The digital transformation of infrastructure presents a tremendous opportunity to improve each system’s overall performance. Operators of digital infrastructure get alerted when a system is failing, not when it has failed. They can make decisions – from allocating power supplies to managing rush-hour traffic – that are based on real-time demand rather than perceived.
These aren’t just concepts of innovations. They are here, and they are working today.
In California, a Native American reservation is using software to manage a microgrid that keeps power flowing when they’re affected by landslides. It’s also predicted to save the reservation $200,000 per year in energy costs and 150 tons of CO2 annually.
In New York City, the subway is starting to rely on wireless communications to safely run more trains per hour, a more cost-effective, feasible alternative to building more tracks. After this communication technology was installed on the Canarsie “L” line in 2007, ridership increased by 27 percent.
In Seattle, a traffic management system, instead of relying on historical data, is changing patterns in real-time when congestion is high, cutting travel times by nearly 15 minutes during its worst commute days.
Third, we must do what it takes to develop world-class passenger rail and transit connections before it’s too late. In one year the US will invest roughly as much into our highway system as we have into Amtrak during its entire 46-year history. But a new infrastructure program is a chance for a fresh start. Six straight years of record ridership for Amtrak show that trains have re-emerged as a vital and growing transportation choice. New rail investment could also help metro and subway systems get out ahead of maintenance needs instead of constantly struggling to keep up with critical repairs.
Fourth, even as the federal government pursues its biggest infrastructure program of the 21st century, public dollars will still need to be supplemented by other sources of capital. Between now and 2025, the nation is on pace to invest nearly $1.5 trillion below what is needed to keep our infrastructure up to date, according to ASCE. The private sector has a role to play, too, particularly by spearheading public-private partnerships, or P3s, in which companies and governments work together to finance projects. Though the U.S. has the largest potential P3 market, we still execute fewer P3s than other countries. State and federal legislation that strengthen the environment for P3s can help change that.
Most of the infrastructure we rely on today to get to work, power our homes, and support our businesses was made for and in the 20th century. It’s our turn – while this century is still young – to build the systems we need today and in the future.
Raising our infrastructure GPA would be nice. But boosting our economy, improving our commutes, and creating new jobs would truly make the grade.
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