Refocusing the National Discussion about Infrastructure: Building a Sustainable Future

The new dialogue on the need for federal funding for infrastructure improvements has mostly focused on ways to pay for the projects. Yes, finding ways to tap new resources, perhaps through creative public-private partnerships, and ensuring that public works investments benefit everyone is critical. But as important as earmarking an appropriate funding stream is, such discussions actually miss what should be a centerpiece of the conversation.

Simply put, innovation and smart project design matter. Building infrastructure based on last century's design approaches would be like centering your new home audio-video system on cassette tapes and VHS. The fact is spending on infrastructure, and by that we mean spending on energy, transportation and water systems, can deliver tremendous, lasting benefits to local communities, states, and even the nation. But the transformative power of such spending will only be realized when we reboot project design for the 21st century.

The signs that much of the country's infrastructure is old and in dire need of rebuilding are all around, from toxic lead leaching out of century-old water pipes to power grids susceptible to blackouts, traffic-clogged highways and chronic street repair backlogs.

Investing in modernizing our infrastructure will indeed be good for job creation. In 2012, according to a Brookings study, over 14 million U.S. workers were employed in infrastructure jobs, accounting for 11% of national employment. On the local level, high quality infrastructure is essential for the economic well-being and health of every American community.

But if we choose a new generation of smart and innovative infrastructure projects, so much more can be accomplished. Rather than simply directing money to "shovel ready" projects drawn up from the decades-old civil engineer's playbook, we need to prioritize opportunities that will work better for our communities for the decades ahead.

How do we optimize our infrastructure investment choices? To meet this challenge, we can be guided by a set of simple sustainable infrastructure principles to invest in projects that have greater and more lasting affordability, along with superior economic, environmental, and social value per dollar invested. For example:

  • Go for the Triple Crown: Fiscally Sound, Resilient, and Sustainable: Smart infrastructure investment does more than one thing. It saves money over the life of the facility (often 30 years or more), improves the system's ability to resist and recover from natural disaster, and significantly improves environmental performance. Helping farmers modernize their irrigation systems, for example, cuts costs, improves profits, saves fish, keeps more water in the river, and reduces vulnerability to drought.

  • Consider Broader Alternatives and Build a Better Business Case: Wise infrastructure investment draws on the best technology and innovations available to compare a portfolio of options to solve a particular problem before locking in on an "old-school" strategy. Investing a little more in planning up front can uncover strategies that deliver significantly more value over the life of the project. Seattle Public Utilities is a pioneer of this new investment discipline, delivering many millions of dollars each year in savings to its ratepayers.
  • Encourage Silo-Busting: Virtually all our communities are heavily invested in multiple infrastructures - everything from streets and bridges, to electricity, natural gas and heating services, water supply, sewers and stormwater, and waste management. Very often planning and investment for these systems are compartmentalized, which can lead to missed opportunities for multiple benefits and increased overall value. Spokane, Washington's "Integrated Clean Water Plan," for example, brings together parks, transportation, and water departments in a joint strategy designed to deliver clean water faster at a savings of150 million.
  • Get Smart: Today people carry devices in their pockets packing information, communications, and monitoring capabilities unimaginable a generation ago. Advanced technologies are transforming many industries, but for our infrastructure systems unrealized opportunities abound. Avista, a leading utility in smart electric grids based in Spokane, for example, leveraged intelligent systems to instantaneously identify the exact place where a truck backed into a power pole to bring power service back online quickly. When a neighborhood or business district is blacked out for just minutes instead of hours, the economic value can be significant.
  • We are at a rare point in American history with broad bipartisan support for some kind of federal infrastructure initiative. Steering that investment toward smart and innovative projects will optimize the economic and quality-of-life benefits for communities. The real question is, will our elected leaders have the foresight and wherewithal to move in this direction?

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    This essay was jointly written by Rhys Roth, director of The Evergreen State College's Center for Sustainable Infrastructure, Craig Partridge, consultant with the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure, and Michael Zimmerman.