America has an infrastructure problem.
It’s not a new problem, and it’s not a problem that can be easily solved. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has recently released their latest report card on the state of American infrastructure and America is flunking out with a D+.
But in 2013 the ASCE gave the country the same overall grade of D+ for essential infrastructure. In four years, nothing much has changed.
Back then the ASCE outlined how it would cost $3.6 trillion just to get things to standard by 2020. What sort of actual spending was there? At the end of 2015 Congress congratulated itself on “the largest transportation package in more than a decade” when allocating $305 billion to infrastructure spending, or less than 10% of what was required just to bring things up to modern standards.
The impact of this crumbling infrastructure is apparent to anyone paying attention, and these impacts are increasingly being felt sharply in all facets of life.
Drive a car? The Department of Transportation reports that more than two-thirds of the nation’s roads and nearly 143,000 bridges are classified in “dire need” of repair or upgrades.
Heat your home? It’s estimated that it will take spending of more than a quarter of a trillion dollars to replace the 90,000 miles of aging gas pipelines that serve American cities and kill or injure dozens each year.
Want a drink? Water infrastructure issues mean higher water prices, and the already 14 million households that struggle to pay for their water each month could soon balloon to 41 million households.
Worse than this, though, is where infrastructure spending is made. Consider, as Bloomberg did, how the $800 billion from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was allocated:
$288 billion for tax cuts
$155 billion for health care
$100 billion for education
$82 billion for the unemployed and low-indole workers
What was left for recovery and reinvestment in infrastructure?
Just $105 billion.
As Bloomberg explains, this spending was pushed towards “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects:
Shovel-ready – what we can throw money at today – is the exact opposite of long-term strategic planning. That would involve thinking about how to improve our electrical grid, modernize the deteriorating U.S. transportation system and upgrade the water and sewer networks critical to public health. New York City, for example, relies on a system of tunnels and aqueducts to supply drinking water to more than 10 million people. Parts of that system are more than a century old.
That bold text is key and the clue to why this infrastructure spending was wasted: there was no long-term strategic planning, just spending – fast.
But there is good news: the infrastructure problem that American faces is significant but solvable.
A national-level, strategic investment program in essential infrastructure means identifying the problems, determining the available resources for investment, prioritizing that spending, and getting to work. This alone is no easy matter but things get more complicated, still, with consideration of the interactions between private and public investors, the hundreds of utilities that own or manage essential infrastructure, coordination between federal, state, and local governments, and the regulatory regimes that make moving on essential infrastructure projects often difficult and almost always slow. If you then add in the problem of finding sufficient skilled workers to build, restore, and replace all this infrastructure you have not just a complicated problem but a complex one.
With the right software, even the most complex systems can be modeled, simulated, and optimal strategies determined.
It’s possible to draw together the knowledge of infrastructure experts like the ASCE and infrastructure asset managers, combine it with the knowledge of experts in complex system dynamics and in modeling and simulating complex systems, and develop applications that help decision makers choose which projects to pursue, in which order to pursue them, and what the impact of those projects will be. This technology exists today and, indeed, has already been used to optimize infrastructure and asset investment projects in Europe – surely America is ready to embrace the same approach?
Solving the national infrastructure problem will require effective planning and the spending of trillions of dollars or public and private money. However, as the most recent ASCE report card demonstrates, the costs of not acting soon and effectively will cost the country more and for longer. It’s time for America to invest in infrastructure and embrace the world-leading technology that will help them do this best.