Guest Column | March 31, 2015

Making The Grade: A Six-Point Plan To Regain America's Infrastructure Leadership


What will it take to get the country’s infrastructure back on track and up to speed? A group of experts has set the course.

By James A. Moore, Ph.D., principal, Jacobs Advance Planning Group

In 2012, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) convened a meeting to address the ongoing decline in the nation’s infrastructure. Invited attendees included representatives from the private and public sectors, nonprofits, and academia. Their challenge was to assess the potential to develop an effective and achievable longterm strategy for enhancing and upgrading, building, and rebuilding America’s current and future infrastructure.

The positive momentum generated at this meeting spawned a second event, “Making the Grade,” held in New York City in 2013, from which an important document arose. The state of America’s infrastructure was addressed with a plan of action, but first the challenge was laid bare:

“… 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.”

Plan Of Action
The “Making the Grade” symposium featured two days of roundtable discussions, with experts from 45 companies representing the entire spectrum of the U.S. infrastructure industry — planning, engineering, construction, and technology. Representatives from local governments, professional organizations, think tanks, financial advisors, and academia were also included.

The participants at these roundtables agreed to work together to craft a formal strategy to be presented to America’s political and business leaders. The result of their work was a consensus white paper, Making the Grade, released during a televised event at the National Press Club in June 2014.

Subtitled “A National Six-Point Plan to Regain America’s Infrastructure Leadership,” the short document described the status of our country’s infrastructure and the conditions that are stymying efforts to comprehensively address the situation. It then lays out a series of steps to help overcome these conditions.

The report points out that America’s infrastructure, much of it built in the decades after World War II, was once the best in the world, but that the nearly 70 years since the end of the war have seen gradual decline, deferred maintenance, and the occasional cataclysmic failure.

While perhaps the most visible form of infrastructure (and evidence of its deterioration) is the nearly four million miles of roads that are the backbone of our country’s transportation system, water systems are equally important, if less obvious (unless they, too, deteriorate — at which point the loss of service becomes quite noticeable).

“A water main only gets our attention when 100-year-old pipes burst and suddenly there’s no water for a shower,” the report states. “Stormwater drains are invisible until one too many downpours turn streets into rivers and create costly bills for homeowners with flooded basements.”

The fragmentation of the infrastructure industry in this country may be the most critical factor to overcome.

A key point reiterated throughout the report is the relationship between infrastructure and economic development. “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.”

The report recognizes that fiscal constraints and budget pressures at the federal, state, and local levels have hindered attempts to upgrade infrastructure in the past but suggests that “something else less tangible, but even more important, has been at play in recent years: erosion of the political and public will to invest in the future.”

Fragmentation of government, politics, and even society has hindered attempts to build the necessary political consensus to aggressively tackle infrastructure decline. This situation is exacerbated by a poor understanding among both political leaders and the general public of the economic benefits of strong infrastructure and the downside of not investing in infrastructure.

While moves are afoot to improve both infrastructure spending and quality, the U.S. did not rank high in either at the time of the report.

“The United States currently spends just under 2 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure, while most estimates show Europe at closer to 5 percent. Emerging market economies such as India and China invest at much higher rates, from 9 to 11 percent, according to some estimates. The current World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index ranks the United States 14th in infrastructure quality, behind Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and Hong Kong, along with a number of European nations such as France and Germany.”

The U.S. is seeing the ramifications of deferred maintenance and lack of investment, even as we are also beginning to experience an increase in severe weather events that would stress brand-new infrastructure, let alone systems that are decades old.

The fragmentation of the infrastructure industry in this country may be the most critical factor to overcome. If, as the ASCE points out, infrastructure can be viewed as our nation’s “nervous system,” our current methods of procurement, planning, design, construction, and operations are much too compartmentalized and disconnected to create an effective outcome.

“Siloed responsibilities only exacerbate these challenges,” the report asserts. “Whether the discussion is about improving infrastructure resiliency to withstand natural disasters or to keep the nation’s economic leadership in a highly competitive global environment, there is consensus that breaking down jurisdictional and operational barriers and looking at infrastructure in more integrated ways are key factors in meeting these challenges.”

At the same time, new technologies and processes have evolved in recent years for the design, engineering, construction, operation, and maintenance of infrastructure that are superior to previous ways. These new technologies and processes can help us approach infrastructure as integrated, networked, “smart” systems, rather than as isolated civil engineering projects.

The business and financial models that control the interactions among stakeholders were established for an earlier America that no longer exists.

To begin addressing the current situation, the report suggests a series of steps:

Start with integrated infrastructure planning. The key to integration at the actual design, engineering, construction, operation, and maintenance stages is to start by empowering planners to envision and model the data-informed city in an integrated framework of infrastructure systems. With the intelligent technologies currently available, we have the capability to build infrastructure for lower carbon emissions and greater sustainability and longevity. And as we think to the future, advanced technologies working in harmony will enable us to push existing boundaries and drive further innovation.

Modernize project planning and delivery approaches. The purpose for and demands on infrastructure have changed, but the protocols for developing public projects have not kept pace. There has been a failure to adopt modern delivery methods, supporting technologies such as building information modeling (BIM) and good asset management practices — all of which should be instituted at the planning and financing stage of the project to ensure the infrastructure assets are operated and maintained efficiently through their life cycle. The failure to modernize has led to an inefficient and liability-ridden process that is estimated to add 15 to 25 percent to the final project cost. Contributing to these added costs are the outdated policies, often required by law or regulation, that prevent contractors from working directly with planners and designers during the initial phases. The result is misalignments and errors that must be corrected in the field rather than in the office, forcing costly and timeconsuming redesigns and change orders.

Apply the triple bottom line. Infrastructure can earn more than financial returns. Public resources used to leverage private resources can accomplish social and environmental goals as well. In addition, the triple bottom line approach is increasingly seen as a benefit to the private sector, as sustainability is an important measure of business growth.

Call for investment and financing. The business and financial models that control the interactions among stakeholders were established for an earlier America that no longer exists. Infrastructure needs to be framed as essential to the economy and to job growth, and should encourage use of intelligent technologies that foster innovation to build smart, sustainable communities. To overcome the gap in financing, there needs to be a broader range of financing options that encourage private sector and direct public pension fund investors to invest in U.S. infrastructure.

Nurture public-private partnerships. Known as PPPs and categorized as shared risk and reward approaches, they are transforming how infrastructure contracts are formed and are emerging as a reliable way to bridge funding gaps. Importantly, PPPs are recognized as an innovation that can reduce project life cycle costs, accelerate delivery due to the integrated delivery approach, and improve longterm operation and maintenance.

Tap into community vision. Today, cloud, mobile, and social computing are changing how we design, interact with, and think about our future infrastructure needs. Collaborative engagement is an important concept in creating this strategy for change. The process begins locally, one project at a time, when the public and private sectors reach out to and involve their communities of interest — starting at the very beginning of an infrastructure project and continuing well into its operation. Visual technologies can assist by providing “virtual reality”scenarios to help community members understand and evaluate the impact of a particular infrastructure project on their lives, homes, and businesses, putting the designs in their context.

The formal six-point plan that emerges from these proposals is both innovative and holistic. It calls for changes in the current system while highlighting the manifest benefits of such change.

The report addresses each of the six points in additional detail. However, underpinning the points and the work that led to them was a clear agreement that infrastructure can no longer be addressed solely by professionals and special interests. This approach requires new thinking on the part of the American public and participation by both public and private sector leaders to develop a common vision and strategy for America’s infrastructure future. In the face of a growing array of community and other special interests, it is imperative that infrastructure planning involve much broader definitions of stakeholders and participants in the process. Only in this way can the vision become shared and a broad agreement be reached.

While Making the Grade offers guidance to restore America’s physical infrastructure, it also expresses the need for the equally important restoration of spirit. “The time has come to reimagine our ideas about infrastructure and recapture the national consensus Americans once celebrated: a civic responsibility and pride in public works.”

The Six-Point Plan

  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 integrate infrastructure agendas and efficiently allocate capital and natural resources.
  3. Establish a national infrastructure bank to acclerate projects that can align with the vision’s goals (e.g., innovation, prudent use of capital, modernizing 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 return on investment (ROI) through transparency.
  6. Engage the American people to build support for the importance of infrastructure policy.

About The Author
James A. Moore, Ph.D., is principal of Jacobs Advance Planning Group and has more than 25 years of technical and managerial experience and leadership in community planning, urban design, and redevelopment consulting. Moore has particular expertise in organizing and managing complex urban redevelopment projects with an emphasis on integrating social, environmental, economic, and physical systems. He participated actively in the development of “Making the Grade.”