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“Re-imagining” our infrastructure

Jan. 19, 2012

A lack of harmony in the political process is limiting our ability to accomplish the big things that are required to re-build America’s infrastructure.” –Mark Gerencser, executive vice president with global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton

It’s no secret that our nation’s infrastructure – from its four million miles of highways to its 55,000 drinking water plants and over 160,000 miles of high voltage electrical transmission lines – is in pretty rough shape.

In particular, truckers (of course) know better than anybody the abysmal condition of our roads and bridges – including how much more crowded they keep getting year after year – yet, like many others, are baffled by government’s inability at both the federal and state level to fix the problem.

From where Mark Gerencser (seen below at left) sits, though, none of this is surprising – and it’s why, in his view at least, a radical “re-imagining” of America’s infrastructure is called for.

“One of the more remarkable aspects of infrastructure is how little we think about it,” he noted in a recent paper he published in The American Interest magazine. “Hardly anyone grasps that infrastructure is to a society what the circulatory system is to a human body: a series of vital, interwoven transmission belts for moving not just things but also people, services and ideas.”

An executive vice president with global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and author of the book Megacommunities, Gerencser believes there are four critical steps we as a nation need to take to successfully get ahead of the massive rolling “Eight Ball” our infrastructure problems have morphed into. Those are:

• Understand that any type of infrastructure discussed – be it highways, electrical transmission lines, whatever – is a highly complex networks.

• Develop innovative design principles that will allow the infrastructures to adapt and grow.

• Build “collective leadership” that will align the interests and actions of stakeholders.

• Create a national, unified vision for America’s infrastructure

[Gerencser discusses some of the details required by these steps in the video clip below.]

“There is consensus across the political spectrum that infrastructure is critical to economic development, job creation, national security and competitiveness,” he noted. “But we need to address our nation’s infrastructure problems, creating ‘national momentum’ to avoid catastrophic consequences.”

Thus Gerencser also suggests eight “principles” around which this infrastructure “re-imagining” effort should be constructed. Whether you agree with them or not, they are nothing if not thought provoking:

Create a shared and comprehensive national vision. America needs a comprehensive vision that inspires and guides planning and action at the regional and local levels. The vision should be a living framework that describes what could be achieved, expected timelines, and how success will be measured. It must also define new mechanisms, in addition to Public/private partnerships, to engage government, industry and civil society in flexible, adaptable, and innovative ways.

Think innovation, not shovels. We will not solve our problems with repairs or extensions. America must re-imagine its infrastructure to meet the needs of its citizens in a future that abounds with both opportunities and competitive challenges. Building world-class infrastructure upgrades at home also prepares American industries to compete successfully in the mammoth wave of new infrastructure development in China, India, Brazil, and other fast-growing emerging economies.

Take the long and integrated view. Short-term thinking is a recipe for failure. While there is undeniable immediate pressure to create jobs through infrastructure projects, creating a wish list of short-term projects has proven to be a mistake. For decades, the federal government has provided states and localities with funding for one-off projects – and now nearly every city has a series of unconnected transportation and energy systems.

Rationalize the bureaucracy and its policies. Federal, state and local officials must ensure regulations, laws and policies are coherent, consistent, stable and enabling within and across infrastructures. For example, federal energy policy engages over 30 different entities that do not coordinate decisions, and transportation—as the biggest consumer of energy—doesn’t coordinate planning, policy, and spending with its counterparts in energy and environment. Infrastructures are becoming more interdependent and so should their governing structures.

We cannot afford to buy our way out. America must innovate new financing, business, and operating models to ensure sustainable, safe and effective infrastructure performance for future generations. We must take steps to level the playing field for public and private investment sources. For example, consider eliminating the tax exemption for municipal debt or exempt all private infrastructure investment from federal tax.

Plan regionally and think holistically. We need regional plans but there is no consistent form of regional governance to plan or implement actions. “Mega-regions” present real promise. For example, one way to alleviate congestion at O’Hare International Airport would be to establish high-speed rail between Chicago and Milwaukee. Unfortunately, there is no ready mechanism for these two metropolitan areas to develop a joint regional plan.

Make resilience a forethought—not an afterthought. Resilience will cost more if not designed in. More than security, resilience ensures enough capacity, redundancy and reliability against failures or catastrophic events caused by natural or man-made disasters, including cyber or terrorist attacks.

Build for the next century, not the last one. Align incentives with objectives. Financiers, builders, owners, operators, and users face perverse incentives. For example, users have the least say in infrastructure design and those who pay for it often realize the least benefits. Adjust the incentives for the various stakeholders and place users at the center of all designs. Our re-imagined Infrastructure needs to account for America’s changing demographics. With 85% of the population living on 26% of the land, cities face unprecedented challenges and new demand patterns.

Regardless of whether government officials at any level (local, state, or federal), much less the general public as a whole, adopt and champion those principles, any effort to reconfigure and improve America’s infrastructure won’t happen overnight. However we decide to do it, we must prepare to batten down for a long haul to get it done.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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