Fresh thinking, modern technology and, of course, money are the tools that could revive America's crumbling infrastructure, according to a new report.
Making the Grade: A National Six-Point Plan to Regain America's Infrastructure Leadership outlines an approach to "solve the crisis of the failing state of U.S. infrastructure" and regain global competitiveness.
Published by CG/LA Infrastructure, the report aims to provide a vision and foundation for discussion about what it calls "a national imperative": building a new strategy for U.S. infrastructure.
CG/LA is a 27-year-old firm global consultancy based in Washington, D.C.
The report represents the consensus of attendees at the "Executing a Sustainable Infrastructure Vision" meeting convened by the White House Council on Environmental Quality in 2012, the authors say.
Images: Making the Grade
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure an overall grade of D+ in 2013.
The meeting was followed in 2013 by a roundtable that included experts from 45 companies across the U.S. infrastructure industry as well as representatives of local governments, professional organizations, think tanks, financial advisors and academic institutions.
Making the Grade defines infrastructure as "the basic public physical and organizational structures needed for society to function." That includes drinking water, wastewater, solid- and hazardous-waste disposal, telecommunications, energy, roads and highways, bridges, transit, rail, schools, ports, aviation and waterways.
The report's six-point plan requires "new thinking" by the American public and participation by both public- and private-sector leaders. The recommendations:
Make infrastructure leadership a Presidential and Cabinet-level priority to convey and support the vision, arbitrate competing interests, and remove obstacles.
Form U.S. infrastructure regions to integrate agendas and efficiently allocate capital and natural resources.
Establish a national infrastructure bank to accelerate projects that align with the roundtable's goals: innovation, prudent use of capital, modernized project delivery, and society benefit.
Sell "opportunity" bonds to raise more capital to fulfill the generational obligation.
Create a national infrastructure index that clearly and transparently articulates the current, future and relative contribution of proposed projects and programs; this should encourage long-term, sustainable ROI.
Engage the American people to build support for the importance of an infrastructure policy.
Building Off of Bad Grades
The 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, by the American Society of Civil Engineers, gave the U.S. infrastructure system an overall grade of D+.
By imagining "what could be" and combining today's smart technologies, "we have the capability to build infrastructure for lower carbon and greater sustainability and longevity," the report says.
ASCE said the U.S. would need to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 to upgrade and expand its infrastructure.
"Such near-failing grades also have devastating social and economic consequences," CG/LA said.
They should also provide grounds for consensus that a fresh look is in order.
'We're Not Number One Anymore'
According to the report, $101 billion in worker productivity and fuel is lost each year because 42 percent of major urban highways are congested. At the moment, an $846 billion gap in roadway investment is growing.
"We're not number one anymore," the report quotes former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as saying.
"We're number 14 (according to the World Economic Forum). Bridges are faling down, roads are crumbling... [We're] not creating any jobs. We're not creating any opportunities. We're not rebuilding America."
The U.S. spends less than two percent of its Gross Domestic Product on infrastructure; Europe, closer to five percent; and emerging economies such as India and China, 9 to 11 percent, the report says.
While U.S. budget pressures have taken their toll, the report says, so has "erosion of the political and public will to invest in the future."
Changes will demand new thinking and new policies, including methods to guide conception and management of projects throughout their lifecycle, the report says.
The report highlights several suggestions for improvement.
Integrate infrastructure planning. By imagining "what could be" and combining currently available smart technologies, "we have the capability to build infrastructure for lower carbon and greater sustainability and longevity," the report says.
It notes that the European Parliament recently approved a directive that encourages public authorities to use Building Information Modeling (BIM) in public works. The directive could lead to more directives in the 28 EU member states.
Modernize planning and delivery. Design-bid-build approaches have been in use for decades, and the failure to adopt modern delivery methods and their technologies "has led to an inefficient and liability-ridden process" that adds up to 25 percent to project costs.
Outdated policies that are still on the books add to these costs and prevent contractors from working with planners and designers early in the process.
"The result is misalignments and errors that must be corrected in the field rather than in the office, forcing costly and time-consuming redesigns and change orders," the report says.
Tackle financing gaps with a wider range of options that encourage private-sector and direct public pension fund investment.