Infrastructure Gets a Boost

In my previous posting, I wrote about advanced manufacturing as one of the pillars of our future economy. Perhaps advanced manufacturing is better viewed as an important industry sector, not as a pillar of the economy. But I think nobody will argue with me when I state that the infrastructure is a pillar that supports almost all economic activity.

Economic activity depends on the transportation of goods and services from buyers to sellers, and also on communications between them. (Sometimes transportation or communication itself is the service being sold.) Economic activity also depends on law enforcement and national security, both of which require reliable transportation and communications. One way of defining infrastructure is to think in terms of networks, such as roads, navigable rivers, telephone connections, and now Internet connections. It also makes sense to include the dams and levees that protect us from flooding.

So what’s the shape of our infrastructure these days? The American Society of Civil Engineers gives it a grade of D and cites numerous failings, including jammed highways, rusting bridges, and obsolete water and wastewater systems.

The last few years have seen some horrifying failures of the infrastructure, most notably the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis and the 2005 failure of the flood walls in New Orleans. In an attempt to improve the infrastructure and prevent future disasters and economic decline, two senators from opposing parties, Christopher J. Dodd and Chuck Hagel, reached across the aisle in 2007 to propose the creation of a “National Infrastructure Bank,” but their bill did not pass.

However, one of the co-sponsors of the bill was Senator Barack Obama, and as president he has moved to direct funding to the infrastructure. It was easy to convince Congress that infrastructure repair was central to the stimulus package because such work must be done here, rather than overseas; it gives a particular boost to the construction industry, which was hit harder than most industries by the collapse of the housing bubble; it has a clear relationship to future economic activity; and it has traditionally been funded mostly from state budgets, but these budgets have recently been so strained that a large number of projects are ready to commence work as soon as funding is made available.

The recovery bill includes $27.5 billion for modernizing roads and bridges; $8.4 billion for construction or improvement of commuter and light rail transit facilities; $19 billion of stimulus for water pollution prevention, flood control, and environmental restoration; $4.5 billion to expand broadband Internet access to rural and underserved areas; and $3.1 billion to improve facilities on public lands and parks.

People may legitimately disagree about what is and is not covered by the term “infrastructure,” and there was also political disagreement about some of the funding proposed for the stimulus package. Some $140 million was proposed for facilities of the U.S. Geological Survey. Some politicians, notably Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, denounced this expenditure, saying it was for volcano monitoring (actually, just one of several USGS projects), but the subsequent repeated eruptions of a volcano in Alaska demonstrated that volcano monitoring is indeed necessary. It is also arguable that a program to monitor against and take action in response to a flu pandemic is a kind of infrastructure. Most of the stimulus funding that was proposed for this purpose was removed from the final bill, largely because of the efforts of Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Recent events suggest that we actually need this funding, especially during a recession.

The Obama budget proposal of February 26 projects continues spending to improve the infrastructure. For example, it funds the National Infrastructure Bank originally proposed by Senators Dodd and Hagel with $25.5 billion over the next 10 years.

In 200 Best Jobs for Renewing America, which will come out this autumn, I identify the occupations that will play important roles in the rebuilding of the infrastructure and that are associated with the other pillars of our economy.

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