Nation’s crumbling infrastructure endangers our future

During the first week of January, unusually cold weather descended on Jackson, Mississippi and over 100 water mains broke.  Schools and businesses were closed for the better part of a week, and residents were told to boil water, even for washing dishes.  Toilets could not be flushed.
Prior to 1970, Jackson used cast iron for its water supply pipes, a particularly brittle metal that does not fare well when frost heaves the clay subsoil.  It’s not the first time cold weather has created a crisis in Jackson.  WAPT, a local news station, said the city was “all but crippled by broken sewer and water lines that could not withstand the crushing contraction of the cold” after a 1989 ice storm.
Jackson’s problems may be unusually severe, but are not unique in American cities where much infrastructure is on the precipice of failure or inadequate to serve demand.  Some rural communities are still using wooden pipes for water supply.  Other types of infrastructure are also in need, and not all of it is buried—our bridges and roads are crumbling in plain view.
As in Jackson, problems are sometimes deferred even after disaster strikes.  We watched in horror in 2007 as cars dangled from a collapsed bridge in Minneapolis and in 2005 as Hurricane Katrina destroyed the levee that protected New Orleans from the seas.  The Northeast Blackout of 2003 exposed just how fragile the nation’s electrical grid is when millions lost power across eight states.
Our infrastructure that was the envy of the world only a few generations ago has fallen victim to extraordinary neglect.  It is in need of a whopping $2.2 trillion dollars over the next five years, according to “America’s Infrastructure 2009 Report Card” by the American Society of Civil Engineers and our current infrastructure earns a dismal grade of “D.” Key components such as drinking water, wastewater, roads and levees earn a “D-.” According to the report’s authors, “Crumbling infrastructure has a direct impact on our personal and economic health, and the nation’s infrastructure crisis is endangering our future prosperity.”
Today our nation is forced to examine questions it has never before faced:  Once infrastructure is in place, how should it be systematically improved?  How can we optimize management of infrastructure to maximize economic benefits and normalize services across the country? The bridges and schools and roads that we convey to our communities’ next inhabitants, and those after them, must continue to serve the nation’s economic interests while keeping the public safe.
The economic stimulus package passed in early 2009 allocated billions to public infrastructure improvement.  That is promising, but the country needs more than reactionary spending. We need a vision – a new paradigm of integration and collaboration among today’s countless disparate stakeholders and jurisdictions in critical areas like energy, transportation and water distribution. As daunting as it is during a recession to contemplate a $2.2 trillion, five-year investment, the critical trajectory of our dilapidated infrastructure requires us to open the dialogue now.
We can bring progress within our grasp.  For example, consider the 53,000 independent water service companies in the United States.  An integrated water supply management program, at least for the 500 water suppliers that serve the majority of the population, would be far preferable to 500 independently planned and procured projects.  Enterprise management to promote collaboration between water jurisdictions would reap dramatic efficiencies and cost-savings in addition to better ensuring a safe and adequate water supply.
On the energy front, the U.S. Department of Energy’s SmartGrid program is a good model of an integrated approach to connectivity, automation and coordination of our nation’s electrical power.  Treating our energy grid as a whole will reap dramatic savings and create reliability and stability. The same strategy should be applied to roads, bridges, schools and water.
The nation can no longer afford to defer action.  Infrastructure investment will stimulate the economy and improve quality of life.  The only missing ingredient is visionary leadership.
Heller, FAIA is a registered architect and President and CEO of Design + Construction Strategies.