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

 

6 comments

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“…investing in the right technology solutions now can ultimately ready our cities to excel in today’s population-growth era.”

I hate to pop anyone’s bubble, but in a world of SEVEN BILLION people (and still exploding) maybe it’s time to read the tea leaves and understand that “today’s population-growth era” and related incentives need major and timely CHANGE! Many already born have NO prospect of land, clean water, basic sanitation, becoming functionally literate, acquiring a skill in demand, getting even a subsistence job, or living to old age.

You’re unlikely to read this in the Catholic Digest, but a majority of the people already born in third world nations and even India will NEVER enjoy the life of relative affluence and luxury TV brings into their homes. Those on the bottom economic tier of such nations produce only urine, feces, and more of themselves; all of which is more likely to cause standards of living to DECREASE.

Is humanity’s “purpose” to cover every bare inch of soil with people living hand-to-mouth subsistence lives that can best be summarized as short, brutal and nasty? Maybe we need to give some thought to raising our grade of ‘F’ for getting world population back down to a level that is sustainable by our earth? There is no road down which this can can be kicked further.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Government contractors conclude the government should spend more money on government contractors.
We didn’t have to pay government contractors to tell us they would conclude that. Another wasted tax payer dollar, flushed down the toilet, just like trillions of others.

Posted by ATAT8080 | Report as abusive

Can an “F” in economics lead to an “A” in US infrastructure?

No.

The wealthy have no reason to invest in the US infrastructure, including in US schools, when there is no profit in it.

When we force the wealthy to restrain their global greed, this nation MAY recover, provided it is not already far too late.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

@EconCassandra/PseudoTurtle,

“The wealthy have no reason to invest in the US infrastructure, including in US schools, when there is no profit in it.” Please. That’s just plain silly on so many levels.

Even in gated communities, the “wealthy” do not live in a “bubble” separate from our society. The deliberate inflation of American dollars by our government forces them to invest funds at some profit or move into a more stable currency (good luck with that). Their purchasing power is decreased at the same rate as that of those on Social Security (or other fixed income sources in retirement). The value of money stuck in a mattress shrinks day by day.

Most of “the wealthy” in these United States make a significant part of their money here. Even if you are designing clothes that you have manufactured in Bangladesh and shipped to points of distribution, the United States is still the world’s largest, richest market.

To sell here all businesses, large and small, wealthy and “hanging on by their fingernails”, need reasonably clear and reliable roads to function efficiently. The wealthy can’t fly to meetings without airports or FAA air traffic control services, even if they have private jets.

They have to eat, so trucks supply their restaurants and grocery sources. Trucks don’t go far without functional bridges. Both public and private sectors require certain fuels be available within a certain price variable.
Their offices require adequate and reliable power, pure water, sewage and trash disposal.

Their society does not function without a legal system. It also requires a financial system of sorts. If they choose to invest so as to actively participate in any of these fields, or the building or maintaining of same, there IS (or certainly should be) “profit in it”. I fail to see how “profit” can become a dirty word when it is the basis of all the economic activity upon which civilization depends.

There is profit in Charter schools, Montessori schools, technical schools, hospitals, commercial buildings, rental housing, etc. Public schools and much of what I mention above is paid for with property and sales taxes of which the wealthy pay their fair share.

You have to establish the factual existence of whatever your idea of “global greed” is before it is possible to entertain the idea of “forcing” restraint. This manner of thinking is decidedly juvenile. You can do better.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

It’s a pipe dream to think there is enough money for these kind of projects. Didn’t the Big Dig show that? NY will bankrupt itself trying to replace the Tappan Zee bridge. Our schools are so unionized that we pay top dollar for the bottom graduates to teach. Healthcare is still costing 1/6 of our GDP and growing, with or without Ombamacare. We need to fix our government first (term limits and campaign finance reform), then we can work on the morals and ethics of our people.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Investing in repairing and upgrading our infrastructure is the key to the future growth of our economy. It makes businesses more efficient and profitable. It also makes the U.S. more attractive for investments by businesses (both U.S. and foreign businesses).

Pay me now or pay me much, much more later.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive