Can ‘D+’ in infrastructure lead to ‘A’ in economics?

By Daryl Dulaney
July 19, 2013

When the American Society of Civil Engineers gave American infrastructure a D+ “report card” this year, maybe the United States should have been proud of its first improved grade in 15 years. But moving from D to D+ still means we need to take tremendous strides to make our cities “smarter.”

Raising our grade to a C isn’t that far out of reach. In fact, we can probably do even better.

The United States has demonstrated an uncanny ability to compete and innovate at high levels despite its often decrepit infrastructure — some pipes and railroads predate the first radio transmission and airplanes. What the civil engineers’ ranking really shows is that the United States has an enormous opportunity to surpass our global competition — succeed at “A” levels in the global economy — if we can just improve our playing field a little more.

So how do we move from near-failing, non-competitive infrastructure to top-of-the-class performance? We unleash our cities to learn, communicate, analyze and improve — just as we expect from our best and brightest thinkers.

As any teacher knows, students learn at different paces. Some need special emphasis to catch up. This same approach applies to making our cities smarter. What San Francisco needs to improve its energy efficiency is probably different than the needs of Denver. Customized approaches are the key to improvement.

That’s why it’s important that the ASCE, for the first time, gave each state its own grade. Collective progress will only happen through individual improvements at the local level. We can drive fundamental change throughout the United States by addressing specifically where each city most requires attention.

True, this can take a great deal of money. But investing in the right technology solutions now can mitigate future challenges and lessen increasing repair costs. More important, it can ultimately ready our cities to excel in today’s population-growth era.

Unlocking each city’s potential is dependent on some key components — namely affordable scalability and interconnectivity:

  • Connected, coordinated public transportation systems — similar to European hubs that efficiently link planes, trains, buses and trams — are now being embraced in the United States. Cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, San Antonio, Denver, San Francisco and Portland are looking into interconnected public transportation systems that can free up roads and feed airports. This will ensure more efficient transportation flow and better support to key economic centers.
  • Microgrids — which are stand-alone energy systems capable of operating in parallel or independent of the larger power grid — can deliver a more reliable source of power. During Hurricane Sandy, for example, Co-Op City, a major housing project in Bronx, N.Y., was able to disconnect from the central city grid and distribute power from its own on-site generator, maintaining power throughout the storm for its 14,000 apartments across 35 high-rise buildings, townhouses, garages, three shopping centers and six schools.
  • Energy-efficient technologies, including lighting or temperature controls, can be financed through performance contracts tied to the value of future energy savings. School districts from Minnesota and Mississippi have used performance contracts to cover the cost of updating infrastructure with new energy-efficient technology. Schools have installed, for example, new systems that during off-hours automatically turn off building lights and lower temperatures — saving considerable energy and money. These schools finance their new equipment over a set period of time (say 10 or 20 years) using the energy savings to offset payments — thereby updating their facility and infrastructure on a neutral budget.

We need to see today’s high-tech revolution applied across the nation. We need to start installing and using that new technology now to help the greater United States in its own “infrastructure evolution” — one that will drive continued economic competitiveness.

That’s not just doing our homework. That’s being smart.

 

PHOTO (Top): Emergency personnel stand on the remains of the collapsed I-35W bridge that spans the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the worst U.S. bridge collapse in more than 20 years, August 2, 2007. REUTERS/Scott Cohen

PHOTO (Insert): Cars are seen in the water as a span of highway bridge sits in Skagit River after collapsing near the town of Mt Vernon, Washington, May 24, 2013. REUTERS/Cliff DesPeaux

 

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