Rich Cooper

Dec 9, 2009

On the drive home last night, I heard the WTOP/CBS news reporters talk about how the President was once again considering the building and re-building of portions of our nation’s infrastructure as a means to put the millions of unemployed and under-employed Americans back to work.  I couldn’t help but feel, “Here we go again…”

Not even a year into office, the Administration is pulling out its playbook to once again issue the rallying call of: “Let’s build roads, bridges, clean-burning energy plants, etc.”  

It is certainly a call worthy of answering. It’s no secret that our country’s infrastructure is in dreadful shape. Decades of neglect, inattention, over use, lack of resources and more have left our nation sailing along in a leaky boat with a semi-operable engine in stormy economic seas.  

But my sense of deja vu at hearing the President’s interests in infrastructure was met by the realization that we are about to commit the same old sins and mistakes we’ve been making for years when it comes to investing in U.S. critical infrastructure.

Since 1998, the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) has released a report card on the state of America’s infrastructure.  In 2009, we scored a big fat D.  

This wasn’t the first lousy report card our infrastructure has received from ASCE.  In fact, it seems to be the latest grade in a consistent pattern of underachievement. In 1998, we received a D. Three years later in 2001, ASCE issued another Report Card where we got a D+.  By 2005, we had dropped back to our consistent D grade.

These grades are not so much a disturbing trend as they are a scathing indictment of how our nation plans and prioritizes its spending and construction on the core engines of America’s security and economy – our critical infrastructure.  

While we are not short on grand ideas for the future or on the laundry list of needs (including addressing our lingering employment problems), we are completely absent any type of national strategy for the planning, preparation or resilience of our critical infrastructure.   

When it comes to allocating funding for roads, bridges and transportation systems, we continue to use the same formulas and mechanisms the U.S. Department of Transportation and other federal, state, local and tribal mechanisms have used for decades. As a result, we continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on projects that have failed to improve our critical infrastructure grade to anything above a D for more than decade.  

By continuing to examine our infrastructure through stovepipes and old ways, instead of looking at them holistically as truly interdependent systems, we are continuing to dig our hole deeper and deeper. The time has come to say, “STOP!”

If the Administration and Congress are indeed serious about rebuilding America’s infrastructure and creating good jobs, it needs to show the same type of energy and dedication to establishing a national infrastructure strategy as the President did when establishing his new Afghanistan plan.

Regardless of how you feel about the Commander in Chief’s decision, he took the time to formulate a path that he believes will lead to securing America’s interests, a free-Afghan people and a terror-free world. Over the past three plus months, the President consulted with our nation’s military leaders, Members of Congress, his Cabinet, international allies, the Afghan government, military families and more in shaping his new strategy for Afghanistan.  

For as cautious and deliberative as his approach has been on this issue, the same cannot be said about our nation’s approach to infrastructure investment.  We continue to operate in “spend first; don’t maintain it and maybe we’ll get around to it later” mentality.

That is shocking when you consider the amount of money we have spent and continue to spend on infrastructure. As history has shown, spending money is never a problem for government; prioritizing and accounting for it are the hard parts.  

The fundamental lack of a comprehensive national infrastructure strategy only ensures that the existing behavior will be allowed to continue unless critical infrastructure leaders, practitioners and average citizens call for and enact the change we desperately need.

We can no longer afford to make the same mistakes again, and unless the Obama Administration and Congress decide to change their course, I’m afraid, “Here we go again.” 

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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