Making The Grade represents the consensus of many who attended the meeting “Executing a Sustainable Infrastructure Vision” convened by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) initially in 2012. The Making the Grade roundtable that followed in 2013 was comprised of experts from 45 companies representing the scope of the U.S. infrastructure industry—planning, engineering, construction, and technology—and their counterparts from local governments, professional organizations, think tanks, financial advisors, academic institutions, and others. Participants agreed to an ambitious goal: describe a new vision and path forward for regaining and sustaining America’s public infrastructure leadership.
A vision that:
- Promotes, as a national imperative, regaining America’s infrastructure leadership through a renewed commitment to infrastructure development for the long term
- Rekindles the foresight, initiative, investment, innovation, and hard labor that went into the development of a national public infrastructure that has served as the foundation for economic expansion, prosperity, and opportunity for successive generations of Americans
- Encourages fresh thinking about project financing and planning that balances the economic, environmental, and social costs and benefits of new infrastructure investments
- Improves the utility and productivity of infrastructure—both new and old—by applying the latest in systems planning and integrated technologies
- Tackles historic road blocks to effective regional and national scale infrastructure
- Embraces modern delivery methods and approaches that promote efficiency in project delivery and discourage unnecessary administrative and liability burdens on stakeholders
- Renews Americans’ historically shared sense of responsibility and enthusiasm for public works by employing capital and natural resources efficiently
The Roundtable’s vision is supported by a national six-point plan that answers the CEQ’s call for broad-based recommendations to support greater investment in national infrastructure:
1. Make Infrastructure leadership a presidential and cabinet priority to convey and support the vision, arbitrate competing interests, and remove obstacles to success
2. Form U.S. infrastructure regions to integrated infrastructure agendas and efficiently allocate capital and natural resources
3. Establish a national infrastructure bank to accelerate projects that can align with the visions goals, i.e., innovation, and prudent use of capital, modernize project delivery methods, and societal benefit, among others
4. Sell opportunity bonds to raise more infrastructure capital to fulfill our generational obligation
5. Create a national infrastructure index that clearly articulates our current state, ambition, and the relative contribution of proposed projects and programs to encourage long-term, sustainable ROI through transparency
6. Engage the American people to build support for the importance of infrastructure policy
This report contains highlights of the thinking that led such a large group of experts to reach these conclusions. The names of these organizations can be found in the Appendix.
The Challenge: Why Failure is Not an Option
What will it take to restore our national imperative of building for the future? Do Americans realize infrastructure’s importance to economic stability and growth? How can we jumpstart a fresh look at the issues? A symposium of public-private infrastructure industry leaders examined these and other questions and agreed the time has come to issue an experts’ consensus report on the seriousness of the status quo and the pressing need for change. For purposes of this summary discussion, the participants define infrastructure as the basic public physical and organizational structures needed for society to function. Examples include: drinking water, wastewater, waste disposal (both solid and hazardous), telecommunications, energy, streets, roads, highways, bridges, transit, rail, aviation, schools, parks, levees, ports, and inland waterways.
Most of us seldom give public infrastructure a thought— until it fails. Highway infrastructure matters only when our commutes become congestion nightmares. A water main only gets our attention when 100-year-old pipes burst and suddenly there’s no water for a shower. Stormwater drains are invisible until one too many downpours turn streets into rivers and create costly bills for homeowners with flooded basements.
The deplorable state of the nation’s public infrastructure was given a cumulative grade point average of D+ in 2013 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). A grade of D is defined as “in poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of significant concern with strong risk of failure.”
Such near-failing grades also have devastating social and economic consequences. The annual cost of the status quo, with ever-increasing water main breaks, electricity failures and transportation delays, is estimated to rise to $1.2 trillion for U.S. businesses and $611 billion for all American households by 2020.2 Putting the situation into perspective on the ground in just two vital infrastructure sectors, roadways, and water/wastewater:
- Currently, 42 percent of major U.S. urban highways are congested. What is the cost for that? $101 billion in lost worker productivity and wasted fuel spent idling in traffic every year. Meanwhile, an $846 billion gap in roadway investment continues to grow. By 2020, we will triple the time stuck in traffic and risk economic gridlock in some of the nation’s densest urban corridors.
- An estimated 240,000 water main breaks every year are symptomatic of an aging and overburdened water infrastructure system, some of which dates to the 1880s. Without extra investment to close the gap, 700,000 U.S. jobs will be at risk by 2020 along with $416 billion of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).
- ASCE’s executive director Patrick Natale described the underlying data (see accompanying chart) that supported the 2013 report card, noting that deteriorating infrastructure has a cascade effect across the economy, “negatively affecting business productivity, gross domestic product, employment, personal income, and international competitiveness.”
Natale said that most of these changes aren’t “something dramatic you will notice overnight, but a gradual worsening of conditions over time. Your commute will become less reliable; your shipments will take longer. You may experience more electrical outages and water issues. And these things cost us something.” He warned: “The message is clear: if we don’t invest now, we all end up paying more in the long run.”
What is needed is a renewal of the national consensus to invest in the public infrastructure that made this the world’s leading economy and provided unprecedented opportunity for successive generations of citizens. When he was asked what the infrastructure challenge is, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said:
“We’re not number one anymore. We’re number 14 (according to the World Economic Forum). Bridges are falling down, roads are crumbling.… [We’re] not creating any jobs. We’re not creating any opportunities. We’re not rebuilding America. America is falling apart.”
It wasn’t always like this.
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