Moderating the infrastructure debate

April 4, 2013

New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg has a reputation as a data junkie who uses statistics to manage the city more efficiently. I think I found his doppelganger in Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder. Fitch recently bumped Michigan’s rating to AA from AA-, where it had been since 2007. Bloomberg and Snyder may be national models for the effective use of data at the local, state and federal levels.

I learned about Snyder’s efforts while watching a Council of State Government’s webinar about the American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2013 report on the condition of America’s infrastructure. The report has been panned by many, including Reuters’ Jack Shafer, who says that the proposed spending is just an enormous meal ticket for the nation’s civil engineers and construction firms. The Director of Michigan’s Department of Transportation, Kirk Steudle, used two arguments to rebut Shafer:

1) Most civil engineers are public employees who don’t benefit from an increase in infrastructure spending. In fact, they would be paid the same if they managed three or six projects.

2) Civil engineers are the professionals who build and maintain the nation’s infrastructure. People don’t question the material motives of the American Medical Society when they issue reports on health issues. As the ASCE’s Brian Pallasch said, “Engineers are the doctors of American infrastructure.”

Shafer’s criticism seems to have hit home for many, but I think he would be happy that another of his points, that infrastructure spending needs to more detailed and prioritized, is recognized now. ASCE included this funding-need chart in its presentation:

Michigan’s Steudle presented a system for making infrastructure data available. It is included in Snyder’s state-level dashboard. At the department-level, a lot of information is available, including research reports on every construction project that the Transportation Department undertakes:

I can see both sides to this argument. Our infrastructure needs may not be as great as the ASCE suggests, but I also got the sense from the webinar that civil engineers are the most cost-conscious public officials in America. We need to improve our infrastructure, but we need a lot more public information before the American people will buy in and support raising gas, sales or income taxes to pay for it. As Michigan’s Steudle said:

MI Director of Transportation “We want to live in a fancy house but we have a minimum wage job” #muniland

— Cate Long (@cate_long) April 4, 2013

When funds are tight, it’s important to make smart choices. More state leaders should follow the example of Bloomberg and Snyder and make data collection and analysis a priority; especially for infrastructure.

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