National Academies Try to Reframe Debate on Infrastructure

September 28, 2010

The National Academies will issue a report by the end of the year on the major challenges in tackling the country’s five critical infrastructure systems: water, power, transportation, telecommunications and waste management. The report, previewed at a recent facilities forum in Washington, DC, is designed to initiate a public-policy debate on the role of these systems in meeting the nation’s needs for the next hundred years.

Linda Stanley, executive director of the academies’ Federal Facilities Council, which initiated the study earlier this year, commented, "We have not established priorities for what our infrastructure should do for us."

The eight-member group preparing the study has identified six key challenges facing the nation’s infrastructure:

  • Shifting the direction and routines of transportation systems to meet increasingly global commerce patterns.
  • Improving the ability of systems to rebound following natural disasters.
  • Upgrading or improving existing systems to improve their performance.
  • Adapting or replacing existing power lines and electrical systems with energy efficient alternatives.
  • Identifying long-term revenue streams for operating, maintaining and repairing systems.
  • Overcoming public inertia to addressing infrastructure needs.

The goal is to reframe the debate around the core challenges so that the country can move beyond the current pattern of simply replacing or repairing what already exists, notes Stanley. She called for the debate to shift from focusing on the infrastructure itself to looking at the services that are provided and then determining what infrastructure is needed to meet those services.

The best solution, in many cases, may come from the local level, noted retired Navy Rear Admiral Peter Marshall, chairman of the Federal Facilities Council. He pointed to the decision by community leaders in Memphis, TN, who, instead of repairing or expanding a bridge, decided to alter commuting patterns and change land use plans to make the bridge less of a problem.

Marshall called on communities to analyze fundamental quality of life issues, such as how they commute, how food is delivered to their home or restaurant, and how electricity is delivered since these issues are fundamental to the infrastructure.

Noting that the nation’s infrastructure affects the economy, he added that maintaining the existing infrastructure and buildings accounts for:

  • 12 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product
  • Is responsible for 11 million jobs
  • Accounts for 42 percent of energy consumed in the country
  • Generates 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will take $1.6 trillion during the next five years to restore the nation’s infrastructure and is pressing Congress to create a national commission to study the infrastructure and identify funding sources.