New report calls for infrastructure investment ‘rethink’

By Rhys Roth

If utility and transportation managers, community planners and local government leaders can agree on one thing, it is that America’s infrastructure is long in the tooth and growing more costly to maintain as it ages. 

Quality infrastructure is essential to local economic vitality and quality of life. The reality is that to keep our society and economy functioning we are going to have to spend many billions, even trillions of dollars on our infrastructure. The question is: how do we get smart about how we’ll invest that money?

During 2014, the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at The Evergreen State College set out to answer this question for the Pacific Northwest, formally interviewing 70 of the region’s top infrastructure innovators and thought leaders. A new report based on these interviews, Infrastructure Crisis, Sustainable Solutions, offers inspiration and guidance to help communities rethink their infrastructure investment strategies. 

Infrastructure systems are the biggest, most enduring capital assets any community joins together to invest in.  If we do it right, our investments in energy, water, transportation and waste management systems will deliver more value and cost less than past approaches. At the same time, smarter infrastructure investments will help us overcome our most pressing environmental challenges and build healthy, prosperous, beautiful and cohesive communities.

Faced with a growing gap between needed and available resources to repair and rebuild infrastructure, managers and engineers are doing an extraordinary, if unsung, job keeping aging systems operating reliably. But the public may be largely unaware of the increasingly urgent ‘infrastructure deficit.’

Among infrastructure professionals, though, recognition is growing that innovative new approaches are required to inspire smarter approaches that foster public support. "We're making decisions today that we'll live with for 50 years. We can't keep doing things the way we always have," says Peter Binney, 2011 winner of the President's Medal from the American Society of Civil Engineers. 

A new investment discipline for infrastructure spending is needed based on rigorous analysis of innovative alternatives to identify strategies that leverage new technologies and techniques to deliver the best return for the community. Combined with public education and transparency, evaluating a broader set of innovative options, and a broader set of costs and benefits, can help convince the public to support, and pay for, new investment in our infrastructure systems.

Smart, sustainable infrastructure investments will move us toward systems that are:

  • Affordable: Demonstrating a strong business case spanning not just upfront capital cost but the full investment lifecycle including operations and maintenance
  • Integrated: Finding whole-system solutions that span the silos now isolating different systems to deliver better, more efficient services
  • Rich in co-benefits: Ensuring a portfolio of important co-benefits of real value to the community
  • Environmentally sound and resilient: Achieving radically improved environmental performance and greater resilience to future disruption risks
  • Beneficial to the local economy: Stimulating local investment, growing local capacity in building industries and trades, and helping promote more broadly-shared prosperity

How we prioritize and focus our infrastructure investments can have a tremendous impact on long-term economic vitality in our communities.  According to a Brookings study, over 14 million U.S. workers were employed in infrastructure jobs in 2012, accounting for over 10% of national employment. 

Forward-looking cities and counties will align their infrastructure modernization strategies with strategic goals for the economy and development. “A 10-year infrastructure strategic plan should be integrated with agency plans for service delivery, the regional economy, community development and population patterns, and the livability and economic goals of local governments,” says infrastructure finance expert Karen Williams. “This kind of planning answers the questions, ‘are we doing the right project?’ and ‘are we doing the project right?’”

To maximize local economic benefits, Williams suggests employment- and wealth-building performance requirements to optimize local contractors, suppliers, labor and workforce training, as well as energy efficient and sustainable design. 

Leveraging infrastructure investment to create local pathways out of poverty can reduce income inequality and boost the economy for everyone. Strong evidence has accumulated to suggest that reducing income inequality, and achieving greater racial and economic inclusion, correlates with stronger, more sustained economic growth.

Infrastructure jobs provide pathways out of poverty because barriers to entry tend to be low – only 12 percent of infrastructure workers have a bachelor’s degree. These jobs pay over 30 percent more to workers at lower ends of the income scale. Meanwhile, the infrastructure workforce is aging along with our infrastructure assets, and the need is urgent to inspire and train a new generation of infrastructure innovators.

With legacy systems under stress, and with serious constraints on the public purse, citizen support for needed infrastructure investment is increasingly crucial. Earning that support requires effective communication and public engagement, which in turn must rest firmly upon a compelling vision of where we are going, why it’s so important, and why the strategy is smarter and more cost-effective than the standard way of doing business. Infrastructure Crisis, Sustainable Solutions can be a valuable resource for forward-looking city and county leaders. 

For more information, watch American City & County's exclusive interview with Roth below:


Rhys Roth directs the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at The Evergreen State College. Previously he co-founded and helped lead the Northwest non-profit Climate Solutions, pioneering innovative programs and partnerships instrumental in positioning clean energy at the top of the Northwest’s economic development agenda. In 2013, Rhys was honored as a “Sustainability Trailblazer” by the Sustainable Path Foundation. Returning to his alma mater, Evergreen, over 20 years after graduating with a Masters of Environmental Studies, he authored the Center’s inaugural report, “Infrastructure Crisis, Sustainable Solutions,” in November 2014.


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