A CEO's perspective on how we can revitalize our nation's infrastructure
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As many regular commuters can tell you, our country is facing an infrastructure crisis. Leaking tunnels, congested roads, rusting bridges, and aging railways often mean one thing: lost opportunity from delays and cancellations. In fact, according to a Texas Transportation Institute report, congestion alone takes a $160 billion bite out of the economy annually from lost productivity and wasted fuel.

And it’s not just transit. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which recently gave the U.S. a grade of D+ on infrastructure, estimates the consequences of not investing in infrastructure will add up to $3.9 trillion in losses to U.S. gross domestic product, $7 trillion in lost business sales, and 2.5 million lost American jobs by 2025.

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That’s why I was honored to focus on this issue as a part of a recent broader conversation with a delegation of 50 CEOs from the Partnership for New York City, who met recently with President Trump, members of the administration, and leaders on Capitol Hill. It’s critical that our infrastructure challenges get this kind of attention, and we used the moment to focus on bipartisan collaboration and real commitments.

 

I believe we should focus on three key approaches.

Think big but start small

Some infrastructure projects clearly require massive, coordinated investment — interstate highways or a new trans-Hudson tunnel, for instance. Others don’t have to. We should be unafraid of pilot projects and learning. Some cities are starting with smart street lamps, allowing city officials to efficiently monitor the city’s lighting infrastructure and remotely manage illumination levels to match different needs by district. The result? Energy savings, reduced light pollution, and reduced carbon footprint.

Skate to where the puck should be

What is the infrastructure needed for our cities of the future? Accelerating technology innovations such as ubiquitous sensors, cheap computing power, and 5G networks will open entirely new opportunities and challenges. Smart systems will help us manage and increase access to transportation, healthcare, and energy. Water, air, sanitation, and power systems will deliver in a healthier and more efficient way.

This network of integrated tools and solutions will bridge the gap from today into a better tomorrow by providing greater access to jobs, education, and healthcare for underserved communities. And smart systems will depend on standards-based infrastructure that allows for multiple applications, citizen science, open innovation, and experiments.

Use the Lego principle

The most common characteristic of childhood building toys is that they snap together, in one way or another. Technology is constantly shifting, and we should make sure that whatever we build is interoperable and pliable. It should permit us to shift as technology shifts, and it is the responsibility of government and the private sector to insist on wide and variable platforms for everything as we think about how all the pieces of infrastructure fit together.

Of course, none of this can happen without short-term and long-term costs, including massive investment. One of the biggest questions is where the money will come from. The federal government is limited by statutorily-mandated spending combined with pressure to make changes budget-neutral.

Many state and local governments are facing budgetary pressure from pension obligations and unfunded liabilities. Public-private partnerships are clearly part of the answer, and indeed President Trump’s infrastructure plan seeks to create $1 trillion of investment through federal investments that spur private sector investment.  

Grants from local governments, the U.S. federal government, and private foundations are already making a difference. Cities like Columbus, Ohio, which recently won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart Cities Challenge, give us reason to be optimistic.

By establishing private-public partnerships, grants like this bring upfront investment from companies, creating momentum and providing an example for others to follow. Comparing these funding mechanisms to the $2 trillion needed over the next 10 years, it’s clear that no single answer will be a silver bullet.

One of the hardest and most important parts of the job of a CEO is making choices with finite capital because you simply cannot do everything. Similarly, investing in infrastructure always involves a pull between immediate needs and very real but more distant needs in the future.

There will be give-and-take in the short term as we look at the choices. But just as a CEO cannot say yes to everything, we will need to look hard at every possible solution if we want to say yes to infrastructure. And we must say yes to it holistically.

Our nation benefitted greatly from infrastructure investments made a century or more ago. It’s our responsibility in this time of exponential change not only to refresh and rebuild these assets, but to build the new infrastructure systems that will open up growth and opportunity for our cities of the future. The bipartisan desire to address these challenges is clear. Now we must work together on how to get there.

Cathy Engelbert is chief executive officer of Deloitte US.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.