Infrastructure Week: Four Themes from the East Coast Kickoff Event

May 18, 2018

The sixth annual Infrastructure Week kicked off in cities across the U.S. on May 14. This year’s lineup featured 110 events representing 427 affiliate organizations. Eno was on site at the East Coast Kickoff event, which featured leaders from federal, state, and local governments, labor organizations, and private companies.

The event’s panels and presentations explored the roles of business and labor organizations in building America’s economy, the resiliency and security infrastructure challenges of the 21stcentury, funding and financing options amidst a growing infrastructure funding shortfall, and infrastructure challenges and opportunities in rural America. These panels were followed by the keynote event, a conversation between U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and President and CEO of the Business Roundtable Josh Bolten.

Throughout the event, speakers touched on a broad range of physical assets and systems such as water delivery and purification infrastructure, transportation means and thoroughfares, electric power lines, and broadband technology. The panels discussed the need to repair deficient assets and to extend infrastructure network access for all Americans.

While the panels covered a broad range of topics representing various interests, the following four themes resonated strongly throughout the event:

Today’s infrastructure decisions will have profound effects on future generations

Throughout the kickoff event, a number of speakers alluded to the long-term effects of failure to act on infrastructure improvements. Terry O’Sullivan, General President of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, claimed, “It’s about leaving behind structures and systems that will be there for future generations, just as previous generations did for us.” His sentiment was echoed in others’ calls for investments to be made in both the physical and human dimensions of infrastructure systems.

Among the human-centered considerations is the ability of the future workforce to obtain well-paying, secure jobs building and repairing America’s infrastructure. Moderator Marcia Hale, President of Building America’s Future, asked panelists representing labor and business groups to consider the workforce needs of a trillion dollar infrastructure bill. With impending retirements among current workers and demographic shifts in race, age, and gender among those about to enter the workforce, industries must prepare to attract the next generation of workers through training programs, she stated.

The resiliency panel, moderated by Eno President and CEO Rob Puentes, discussed the significance of investing now in order to plan ahead for natural and cyber disasters affecting infrastructure networks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long called for a “culture of preparedness” in the United States, highlighting the return on investment for disaster mitigation: for every $1 spent on federal mitigation grants, the nation saves $6 on future disaster costs. While engineers need to be conscious of not overbuilding, proper forecasting can help inform both initial plans and asset management needs as wear and tear on our infrastructure continues.

Rebuilding America’s infrastructure requires political will, tough decisions, and bold actions

A number of panelists recognized the challenge of achieving the political will to act on bold ideas for transportation improvements. At the local level, there is overwhelming popular support to build and improve infrastructure, make hard choices, and for the public to participate in raising revenue, according to Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Citizens feel the consequences of non-fully functioning services in their daily lives, such as when they are sitting in traffic. Mayor Adler claimed that citizens are ready to address these challenges. Elected officials must step up, have more faith in the public, and act to improve outcomes for their citizens.

Glenn Youngkin of the Carlyle Group further expanded on the notion of state and local leadership, pointing to cases of effective decision-making such as the Maryland Transit Administration’s Purple Line light rail project (currently under construction) and Los Angeles World Airports’ plan to redevelop the land around LAX as examples of bold, competitive actions occurring below the federal level.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Neil Bradley discussed the nation’s use of outdated technologies in aviation, a topic on which Eno has written extensively. Citing the statistic that, on average, one in five U.S. flights is delayed or cancelled, Bradley stated that we have the potential to improve the technology operating the system so long as we are willing to make the necessary investments today.

Strategic partnerships can help to accomplish difficult tasks

Infrastructure improvements and expansions can effectively leverage partnerships at all levels of government, and, under the right leadership and circumstances, between the public and private sectors.

Public-private partnerships (P3s) were proposed by several speakers as a means to effectively procure, deliver, and maintain new infrastructure. In the resiliency panel’s discussion, Zurich North America’s Paul Horgan stated that P3s are a creative way to solve problems by bringing private sector discipline to long-term investments on resiliency planning. In response, Mayor Adler suggested that P3s are not always the right solution, but as plans are made for the challenges associated with future economic development, there must be a relationship between the public and private sectors, for example by collaborating to ensure that regulation keeps pace with technological innovations.

Mayor Adler further called for increased partnerships between local governments and the federal government, stating that localities need a federal government partner that is willing and able to make hard decisions about funding bold infrastructure plans. However, the Mayor also pointed to examples in his city and others where money was raised and infrastructure built at the local level, calling for the federal and state governments to stand out of the way in order to allow communities to achieve regional infrastructure plans.

Innovation in infrastructure drives economic competitiveness

This kickoff event foreshadowed Infrastructure Week’s broader theme of modernizing America’s infrastructure. Technological advances, better connectivity, and the increasing availability of data will enable urban and rural leaders to build, modernize, and maintain nationally and internationally competitive infrastructure.

As the country’s population continues to grow, there will be increased demand for—and strain on—services and physical assets. Barbara Humpton of Siemens USA raised the subject of the interconnectedness of today’s increasingly digital economy and physical infrastructure. She pointed to the ability of open data systems to increase public and private sector awareness of how infrastructure is performing and to made adjustments in real time. The US Department of Agriculture’s Anne Hazlett echoed this statement in the panel on rural infrastructure by stating that rural areas need to be prepared to use data to show the return on investment of their practices.

Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance noted that broadband technology, “innovation depots”—makerspaces, design studios, and coworking spaces that create artificial density in rural communities by giving workers access to resources, classes, and other workers— and high quality air travel all create connectivity and help to grow rural economies.

In closing out the kickoff event, Sec. Chao stated that one of her priorities for her tenure as Secretary is to prepare for the future, and she noted that innovation must go hand in hand with safety. As the private sector develops new technologies, it must be prepared to properly explain new developments to governments and citizens and work with all levels of government to ensure citizen safety.

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