There are several obstacles to overcome before we can start building more resilient infrastructure. Public budgets are stretched thin. This leads to a focus on getting the lowest cost in the short term, rather than the best value in the long term. Post Hurricane Sandy, there’s more talk about building resilient but, regrettably, it’s often just talk. Frequently, there’s no money for redundant systems and equipment, such as additional power feeds in case one source is lost. This is because resiliency isn’t a high enough priority for many owners. As memories fade, so does our resolve to make sure we better handle the next storm.
Another challenge is the interconnected nature of our cities, especially given utilities, transit, and transportation. This requires effective coordination between numerous government agencies. Large-scale coordination like that is always challenging.
A new system of infrastructure financing – such as an infrastructure bank – is needed to generate funds to upgrade and build more weather-resilient systems. Obama proposed the Partnership to Rebuild America in the 2013 State of the Union address. This would use $10 billion in public money to leverage private investment. It’s a good idea, because we’ve seen that private companies want to invest in public infrastructure. It’s what Skanska does.
The Skanska team’s $2.1 billion Elizabeth River Tunnels PPP project in southeast Virginia includes such resilient elements as raised tunnel entrances to guard against floodwaters.
Finding money through partnerships
Public-private partnerships (PPPs) have been common in Europe and Canada, and they are becoming more common in the U.S. PPPs work best when there’s a critical infrastructure need but not enough public money to achieve that. Maybe it’s a highway that needs to be built, or a bridge, or a courthouse. In the U.S., more than 30 states have passed laws enabling PPPs.
States with P3 legislation. Photo credit: Federal Highway Administration.
PPPs help with resiliency because they encourage a long-term view of each piece of infrastructure. If you’re a company that is potentially going to be signing a contract to build a bridge and then maintain it for 30 or perhaps 50 years, you’re going to build that bridge extra strong because you know the up-front investment to make it stronger and longer lasting will save money in the long run. Government doesn’t have that same contractual obligation, and not having that can promote short-term thinking given public funding constraints.
America’s infrastructure needs work. Fortunately, the technology exists to fix many of our structures to make them more resilient and less susceptible to failure. We need to take action now, instead of scrambling to clean up our messes in the aftermath of another disaster. Building resilient is about being thoughtful and proactive. It’s about recognizing the risks inherent in our world today and making the conscious decision to protect our cities and citizens from the unthinkable.
Click below to see and hear my recent presentation on building resilient infrastructure prepared for the Journalists Forum on Land and the Built Environment at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.