America’s Critical Infrastructure is a Non-Partisan Issue

Feb. 6, 2008

While media pundits fill airtime chattering about who’s up and who’s down in the polls, the American public is hungry for discussion of policy issues about the future of the country.

Elected officials from across the political spectrum recognize the need to secure federal funding for rebuilding infrastructure and enhancing public safety

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

While media pundits fill airtime chattering about who’s up and who’s down in the polls, the American public is hungry for discussion of policy issues about the future of the country.

Many national reports indicate that Americans are concerned about the economy, the war in Iraq, and access to affordable healthcare. But, by looking at what makes America work, what keeps the economy strong, what contributes to local public safety and national security, and how to put Americans back to work in regions where jobs have gone overseas or been eliminated raises another issue that can no longer be overlooked: rebuilding the nation’s critical infrastructure as a federal public policy.

In January 2008, New York’s Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (Independent), Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell (Democrat), and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (Republican) formed a non-partisan coalition, “Building America’s Future,” designed to move America forward and make infrastructure investment and funding a national priority. They envision that the coalition will be joined by state and local elected officials from across the United States, and will become a repository of best practices on infrastructure investment issues. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation for staffing and resources, the coalition plans to work with the national platform committees of both political parties, Democrats and Republicans, to ensure that the next president understands the enormity of the infrastructure crisis and commits to increasing federal funding for infrastructure.

In my September 2007 column, “Public Safety, National Security: America’s 21st-Century Infrastructure Agenda,” I challenged the next president, and urged the nation’s presidential candidates, to focus on rebuilding America’s infrastructure and provided a 10-point 21st Century Infrastructure Agenda. It is encouraging to see that three elected leaders with national stature can rise above party politics and collaborate on this significant issue that is important to all Americans.

Routine Maintenance and Repairs are Often the First Items Eliminated
Recent headlines over the last few years have shown failed levees in New Orleans, air-traffic congestion in the Northeast that cripples much of the United States, the deadly bridge collapse in Minnesota, widespread regional electrical blackouts, and an underground steam pipe eruption in New York. Over the past 20 years, state and local governments have had to bear more of the costs of infrastructure repair, as the federal government slashed needed spending. Routine maintenance and repairs are often delayed and eliminated due to budget cuts and shortfalls, endangering public safety. The prospect of more preventable infrastructural failures and associated fatalities is too high a price for Americans to pay or even consider.

But, critical national infrastructure is about more than roads and bridges. National infrastructure encompasses the basic facilities that communities, cities, governments, and businesses need to survive and thrive. This includes schools, waterlines, wastewater-treatment systems, stormwater management, dams, flood mitigation, hospitals, emergency management and operations centers, law enforcement facilities, energy, aviation, rail lines, ports, communications, cyber networks, and utility systems, both above and below ground. Investing in infrastructure today and planning for contingencies ensures a higher degree of public safety, national security, and economic prosperity tomorrow and for future generations.PageBreak

Global Warming, Global Infrastructure Issues
These infrastructure concerns are not unique to the United States. Global warming and climate change have played a role in highlighting the lack of emergency preparedness and crisis management in different corners of the world, wreaking havoc in societies not used to dealing with extreme weather conditions. As a result, national infrastructure suffers, causing tremendous inconvenience, discomfort, economic losses, and even fatalities in places ill equipped to respond to natural hazards and emergencies.

Snow in the Middle East and China
In January 2008, snowfalls occurred in Jerusalem, parts of Lebanon, and the Middle East, areas long known for warm, dry, desert climates. Housing stock and many buildings in warm zones often lack sufficient insulation or heating systems to adequately prepare residents for cold weather.

During the same month, parts of east-central and southern China experienced the worst snowfall in 50 years, though it hardly rivaled deep snows in New England, the Midwest, or northern Canada. The Chinese blizzard of 2008 crippled electricity and water supplies, slowed coal transport that provides fuel for power plants, and stranded millions of people at transportation hubs during peak holiday travel time. The lack of emergency planning and a crisis management failure of epic proportions affected over 100 million people. With echoes of Hurricane Katrina, one news report in the New York Times claimed, “despite weather forecasts, the transportation department didn’t realize how serious this was until all the roads were already blocked.”

The Chinese transportation network suffered, along with the above ground power grid, and coal supplies. Transmission towers and wires froze, leaving at least one city of 4 million people in Hunan Province without water, electricity, heating, or commercial food supplies for over 10 days.

Rain and Earthquakes in the Desert
The Middle Eastern coastal city of Dubai, built on what was once a sandy subtropical desert in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), received a few inches of rain in January 2008, a very rare occurrence. This rainfall in the desert was the equivalent of snow in Houston. Motorists had no idea how to drive in wet weather and many cars slid off the road, causing accidents and several fatalities. Worse yet, the major roads and infrastructure were not built with stormwater management systems, thus the water had nowhere to drain, resulting in several inches of water flooding expressways and roads, creating impassable conditions. People abandoned their cars on the side of the road, and several fatalities were reported.

Residences and commercial buildings in the desert are typically not designed with much attention to waterproofing or water-resistant building technology on the roofs and windows, because rain has traditionally been so rare. When an occasional rainstorm does occur, leaky roofs and associated problems are common.

And, in what may be more Mid East climate change news of biblical proportions, in early February 2008, the UAE experienced four mild earthquakes ranging from 2.57 to 4.4 on the Richter scale. The world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai, still under construction, is located in Dubai.

Global warming may also impact coastal areas worldwide. Computer models showing rising tides illustrate potential major challenges to every waterfront city and town. Evacuation plans, flood management, land use and zoning regulations, and building codes are among the tools and strategies available to building owners and public officials charged with long-range planning.

These examples illustrate how the built environment and the natural world are changing rapidly in ways that societies are not always prepared for. Carefully coordinated emergency planning, along with disaster response, and recovery protocols by governments at local, regional, and federal levels can avert potential problems before they escalate to a crisis and public relations nightmare.

Infrastructure Investment and Emergency Management Every nation around the world will need to continuously review the state of its critical infrastructure, funding strategies for maintenance and repair, and the ability to respond to situations – natural disasters, emergencies, and terrorist attacks of great magnitude – that might have been unimaginable only 5 years ago. Sound planning now will increase public safety, security, and economic development for the future

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