As Congress lurches toward yet another stopgap solution to the nation's transportation infrastructure crisis, it might be valuable to take a fresh look at some of the assumptions that are driving the issue. The Center for American Progress has estimated that the nation needs to boost its investment in infrastructure by $129bn a year over the next 10 years. Others put the total price tag for the next five years at $2.2tr. Yet before one more dollar is spent, we need to answer a fundamental question: assuming that some form of funding bill passes Congress, what kind of projects should get the money first?
In recent years, we've seen conventional wisdom coalesce around a "fix-it-first" philosophy. For too long, the argument goes, spending priorities have been set by politicians eager to bring flashy new construction projects into their districts. (They don't stage highly publicized ribbon-cutting ceremonies for repair jobs, after all.) Yet many transportation experts feel that fixing up existing highways and bridges before building new ones is a better use of taxpayer dollars.
Now comes Mark Gerencser to challenge that belief. The executive vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton is calling for a total "re-imagining" of infrastructure, instead of a continuing focus on repairing selected roads and bridges "that have outlived their usefulness."
Along with former U.S. Senator Byron L. Dorgan and former National Security Advisor James L. Jones, Gerencser is the author of a recent op-ed piece on the Politico website. They attack what they call "the misguided notion that it's cheaper and quicker to rebuilding existing infrastructure than to re-imagine it. This perception persists despite compelling evidence to the contrary - and the real risks that obsolete infrastructure poses to our global economic competitiveness and national security."
Gerencser wants to redirect the conversation away from a focus that's solely on creating jobs. A fresh approach to infrastructure investment would take into account such critical issues as national security, the economy, quality of life and business competitiveness. "What we have is not going to propel any of those things forward," he says. Other countries, meanwhile, "are leaping ahead."
He likens the nation's transportation system to an old car with a dying transmission. "You wouldn't fix it and then get a new one," he says. "We're suggesting you go right to a new one."
Gerencser admits that repair is still the immediate priority in a number of cases, such as crumbling bridges. The American Society of Civil Engineers claims that more than one quarter of the nation's bridges are "either structurally deficient or structurally obsolete." With a scary statistic like that on the table, you don't want to be musing about "re-imagining" infrastructure at the expense of public safety. "We need to do something about that," he says.
At the same time, Gerencser doesnt believe that the debate ought to be boiled down to this or that decaying bridge or stretch of highway. The emphasis, he says, should be on regional mobility. Planners need to be thinking about such larger issues as severe congestion at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where the construction of high-speed rail to feeder airports might be a better means of relieving pressure than simply adding runways.
Central to Gerencser's argument is the concept of the "megacommunity," a term used by Booz Allen to describe the coming together of government, business and civil society to address shared concerns. (Gerencser has authored a book on the subject.) Frequently those groups find themselves at odds over key issues; it takes a natural disaster or crisis of similar scale to awaken them to the necessity of working together toward a solution. Later this year, Gerencser plans to host a military-style "war game" directed at the infrastructure problem, involving public and private interests. The goal will be to craft "a national vision ... to see if we can get an alignment of purpose and unity of mission." A similar effort, he points out, was previously undertaken in the fractious healthcare sector, where participants worked together on the development and marketing of a "blockbuster" drug for Alzheimer's disease.
Less successful was an effort in 2009 involving members of the cyber-security community. "It was just too soon to get the players together," Gerencser says. "The folks with the authority to attack didn't have the authority to defend."
Here's hoping that the megacommunity concept can succeed in the transportation arena, although it's far from certain that it will. The chasms of division are deep and plentiful: public versus private, freight versus people, federal versus state - and none of them with the money to get the job done, assuming they could ever agree on a plan. Even President Eisenhower, lauded for creation of the Interstate Highway System, couldn't convince automotive companies to help pay for it. And don't count on federal funds to step in and plug the gap this time around. "I don't believe we have the wherewithal to fund these projects [publicly]," Gerencser acknowledges.
Recent developments on Capitol Hill don't bode well for Gerencser's utopian vision. Last month, the Senate passed S. 1813, its version of surface transportation reauthorization. Costing some $109bn, the so-called MAP-21 measure would have kept the system limping along for another 18 months. Praised by organized labor and attacked by business interests, the bill never had much of a chance in the House of Representatives. All that supporters of reauthorization were hoping for last week was a yet another last-minute, three-month extension of SAFETEA-LU, the current authorization bill.
Will a megacommunity magically come together on June 30 to solve the problem of infrastructure funding once and for all? I seriously doubt it. Still, Gerencser might be on to something. Eventually - with a few more fatal bridge collapses, perhaps - the various interests that make up this vital sector could put aside their differences and solve the ever-worsening crisis. But even Gerencser admits to the difficulty of making his philosophy a reality. "It's easy for us to imagine these infrastructures the first time," he says, "harder to re-imagine."
- Robert J. Bowman, SupplyChainBrain
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