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Infrastructure 2011: A Strategic Priority

Infrastructure 2011: A Strategic Priority
by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young

Another summer, another water main break. This year it was in Cambridge, whose independent water system was unaffected by last May’s massive rupture on the metropolitan main leading to Boston. No boil orders this time, but there was knee-deep water on a main street and trickling taps throughout the city.

Chances are, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) was not surprised. It gave drinking water systems a D- on its 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

The engineers handed out a D- five times. The highest grade on the report card (for solid waste, if you must know) was a C+. “If we want to raise the grades, it’ll take a lot of money, a lot of time and commitment,” says a talking head on the ASCE website.

But the money isn’t there. Even when it has been, the American belief that entitlements such as Social Security, free highways, and mortgage deductions should coexist with a constant political theater of anti-government- and anti-tax-rhetoric guarantees that it doesn’t stay there for long. Short office terms, competing jurisdictions, and limited public memory make an endangered species of politicians who choose long-term investment over low taxes.

As the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and Ernst & Young write in Infrastructure 2011: A Strategic Priority, (their fifth jointly produced infrastructure study, released in May), Americans have not bought into the job-creating and efficiency benefits of upgraded infrastructure mainly because we don’t expect to be asked to pay for it. The most telling lack of political will has been Congress’ refusal to raise the federal gasoline tax since 1993.

The report’s revealing tour of public inattention, measly budgets, and political fractiousness leads one to the sobering conclusion that our future as an “advanced” nation is very much at risk.

While other countries, such as Brazil and China, race ahead with high-speed rail and advanced energy and communication grids, we are left with a legacy of fraying systems that have been neglected for decades.

While Canada, the EU, and the UK keep their focus on long-term projects despite the global recession, our overspread, ad hoc stimulus funds peter out. A rundown of the nation’s largest cities finds at least one step back for each step forward. The report cites Boston’s “good fortune” in latching the Big Dig onto the tail of the highway-building boom, while the T faces a funding gap of more than $700 million.

Unlike the ASCE’s seemingly dour engineers totting up an itemized repair bill, ULI folk sound like boosterish real-estate types and earnest policy mavens. They believe in long-term solutions such as a national infrastructure plan (the US is the only large country in the world to lack one), improved public/private partnerships, infrastructure banks, and “race to the top” federal funding to encourage consolidated projects.

All are worthy. But the length and severity of our infrastructural malaise suggest that now is the time to question the very logic of the current debate.

For instance, the report’s top recommendation is for nuts-and-bolts maintenance of existing systems, incentivized through life-cycle costing and long-term maintenance contracts. But even this simple suggestion makes the specious assumption that our past priorities have been correct.

Our ferocious appetite for energy will probably not be sustainable for over 300 million Americans, let alone the billions in the developing world who aspire to emulate it. Yet funding “maintenance” would tilt resources toward things such as subsidized rural airports, inefficient water and sewer systems, failure-prone electrical grids powered by fossil fuels, and overextended highways packed with 18-wheelers. Proven alternatives will lose out: urban transit, high-speed rail, bike- and car-sharing schemes, and incentives for high-efficiency mechanical systems and building envelopes.

Infrastructure as we know it has its conceptual and technological basis in heroic 19th-century engineering and aberrantly cheap 20th-century energy. But we no longer live in those eras.

If we think we can afford to maintain legacy systems while simultaneously constructing the “transformational networks” the report pines for, it will take more than better funding and a sense of national purpose. It will require deeply rethinking our dependence on infrastructure for how we live, work, and move. And, unfortunately, as the report points out, it usually takes a full-blown crisis to precipitate change.

Image above: Boston's Big Dig project, completed in 2007.