Monday, October 8, 2012

93% Say A Plan Does Not Exist

Did you know that there is a company with a specialty in infrastructure strategy and product development on a global scale? No, they are not located in Lexington nor are they planning to move here, but the fact that they exist encourages me. That means that someone is looking out for the built environment of the facilities that connect us or enable us to connect with others.

CG/LA Infrastructure, Inc., which has been around for 25 years and is considered by some to be an industry leader, has just released their latest survey on infrastructure priorities in America. The survey questions were asked of high level executives from all regions and disciplines of the building industry. So, were their conclusions surprising to most folks? Maybe not.

93% believe that the US has no overall infrastructure plan. Wow, that is not news to just about everybody.

Why is it that when we have such huge systems as the Interstate Highways, the national power grid, massive pipeline connections for both oil and natural gas, multi-state water supply lines for our larger cities and even our renewed and growing freight rail network, there is NO overall plan to coordinate them? Do the systems not compliment each other as a whole?

Without a plan there seems to be “…potential for disaster at every turn." as one executive put it. As we have seen in California in the last few weeks, just a small number of minor inconveniences to the petroleum refining system have caused huge headaches for motorists of that state and for many others. A small “glitch” in one system can be magnified through the interdependence of other systems.

57% of respondents encourage public-private partnerships as an important action which can be taken to solve our present situation. 47% favor increasing the gas tax, which has not increased since 1993 and now buys about half of what it did then in infrastructure improvements. (Very politically unpopular) 44% mention the creation of a national infrastructure bank which in this political landscape of gridlock, both in Washington and around the country, may be extremely difficult to do.

In terms of highest or above-average priority for infrastructure investment, it should surprise no one that 79% list our nation’s bridges as needing repair. There is a growing list of sub-standard bridges right here in Fayette County and Central Kentucky. Transportation for America has a map which shows some of the worst. Water and waste-water systems are also high on this list. Our own experience with the EPA Consent Decree stands in the bright spotlight as evidence of this national need. We are not alone in neglecting things which we cannot see yet rely upon so much on a daily basis.

Two-thirds of the respondents mentioned highways as needing more funding, and perhaps they do, but we are already spending massive amounts on soon to be out-dated or obsolete highway projects. If we were to limit our thinking to just this element, could it be that in our desires for high gas mileage and the thrill of driving the open road has left us with clogged roadways and no way of funding improvements? I wonder if those who are able to afford the high mileage auto and live the furthest form their work are the same ones demanding more and better highways.

And how do you think that they felt as to the satisfaction with federal government's role in infrastructure development? 93.5% think that federal government's handling of infrastructure is a job which needs improvement (an understatement?) or just plain poor (abysmal may be a better assessment). Just what is it that we want the federal government to do? Is it government’s job to identify the shortcomings in infrastructure and repair them or should they guide the planning phase of facilities repair? Either way this seems to smack of “big brother” control or influence which our fiercely independent residents would balk at when it comes time to pay the tab. I can hear some of my friends now crying out that private industry can do it cheaper and better than government and yet private industry does not do it because the return on investment is not there.

Shorter approval processes and enabling legislation to allow private sector investment were cited as actions which could be taken to aid the necessary repairs and expansion work. I could assume that faster approval times will indicate a much more lax regulatory environment in which the private sector may reap higher profits yet result in a familiar product. The electric grid and the oil/gas pipelines which need the repair are presently in private hands, are they not. Many of them do not have the best track records in safety and environmental concerns, which may be the way that we got into this shape in the first place.

Government, and especially the Federal government, cannot be solely blamed for the pipeline leaks or the refinery fires and outages. The rail industry, despite its governmental regulations, is again growing and expanding, in major part with private dollars and an improving safety record. The electric grid, as robust as it may seem, is still a delicate lacework which is very much vulnerable to the whims of nature and the evil intentions of terrorists both foreign and domestic.

Remember still that this survey was of the high level executives who are concerned with major elements of life as they know it. What about the portion of citizens who are less than privileged and barely above the government's guidelines of poverty or those who are directly in poverty. What infrastructure is required for them to live a better life and how much do these “high level”executives concern themselves with the systems designed strictly for them?

There was a passing reference to multi-modal systems as associated with freight rail, but no mention of public transportation either locally, regionally or nationally. Should there be a 'potential disaster at any turn' as we have seen predicted above, what back-up (or possibly redundant) system will be available to aid in restoring normalcy? The disruption of oil/gas flow can upset just about all of the Interstate travel and the airlines could not mobilize enough to compensate and travel by rail would be non-existent even though it is the most efficient of the three. The destruction of a few major air control centers will hobble the airline industry, more-so internationally than cross-country, with resultant slowdowns of service.

On the local level, a robust public transportation system would save more than enough fuel to weather an extended slow down. Regional rail systems could suffice for the lack of highway and truck capacity for some freight deliveries. Regional and local farming should sustain the populace until new systems can be put in place. An ultra reliable water supply will prove extremely valuable.

93% of the survey respondents believe that the US has no overall infrastructure plan. I know that we have no real local plan. We have a response plan which may work for he short term, but a plan to rebuild our systems should something happen disastrously or they wear out incrementally, I do not believe exists.

I do believe that one should be developed.

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