Friday, August 01, 2008

Infrastructure Insanity — Part I

The term “infrastructure” is rarely seen as a freestanding word. It is normally accompanied by deprecating terms such as “decaying,” “deteriorating,” “deficient,” or “debilitated.” All of these expressions accurately describe the condition of our country’s basic infrastructure assets, but I have introduced a new word, “insanity,” that conveys the fact that there is a total absence of any coherent political approach on a national level to what appears to be a crisis near at hand.

Confirming this conclusion, the director of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), addressing the 2007 ASCE Annual Civil Engineering Conference last November called attention to the state of the nation’s infrastructure: “Years of deferred infrastructure investment and maintenance, and [the] failure of public officials to act [My emphasis] on infrastructure needs place the public at risk and hinder our country’s economic growth and competitiveness. It is a true crisis.” Unfortunately, like many other crises we are facing, this is one more that requires a monetary solution—at least a trillion and a half dollar solution (and that number is three years old). Let’s first examine the implications of the number one trillion.

At one time, in even recent history, attaining the status of “millionaire” was considered an impossible dream. Yet, in the United States alone there are over 9 million people who can claim that standing. In fact, there are over 400 billionaires in our country, an accomplishment that requires a rethinking of what the word “wealthy” really means. To place that number in context, $1 billion is the equivalent of $1 thousand million. While a number like 1 billion might be understandable, there are some numbers that are truly incomprehensible. For example, it is estimated there are some 70 sextillion stars in the universe—that would be 7 followed by 22 zeros. While a number of that magnitude is well beyond the understanding of ordinary humans, let’s consider another that is significantly smaller but still probably unfathomable to most.

Now we’re talking real money

With so many billionaires today, obviously the next measure of true wealth would be the $1 trillion ($1,000,000,000,000) mark. Imagine having one million million dollars, or its equivalent, one thousand billion dollars. Unimaginable, you say? If that does not adequately describe the full dimensions of that number, consider this: One trillion dollar bills placed end to end would reach 96.9 million miles, slightly more than the distance to the sun. Or think of this—one trillion seconds equals 31,546 years. However the most illustrative description was posted in Current Events, reading as follows:

“Let’s start with one billion [dollars]. If you spent $1,000 a day every day without fail, you would spend $365,000 in a normal year. You would spend $36,525,000 in a century. So, if you started spending $1000 a day starting January 1, 0000, you would be spending $1,000 per day through the end of the Roman Empire, the collapse of the Mayan civilization, the Middle Ages, the Crusades, the Black Plague, the Renaissance, the European conquest of the New World, the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, the end of the 20 th Century, and would finally reach one billion dollars a little more than one-third of the way through the 28 th century. Now, repeat that 999 more times and that gets you to one trillion dollars.”

Mega Trends

While the prefix “Mega” can be defined as “Large”, it has also been identified with the number one million. Thus, Mega doesn’t begin to recognize the magnitude of the term “one trillion.” Yet, it is appropriate to use it when explaining a phenomenon in the making as a mega-trend. One of the major mega-trends of the last century, starting in the 1950’s, and continuing through the 1960’s was the enormous growth of infrastructure, not only in the United Sates, but in Europe as well. This was one of the engines that drove the prosperity of the post-war economy, creating a wealth effect and what turned out to be a consumer driven economy. So, what exactly is “infrastructure,” why is it so critical at this time, and what insanities are involved?


The American Heritage Dictionary defines the term “infrastructure” as “The basic facilities , services , and installations needed for the functioning of community or society, such as transportation and communication systems, water and power lines, and public institutions including schools, post offices, and prisons.” In today’s world, that definition has been upgraded to include a new phrase—critical infrastructure. This latest interpretation was created as a result of the U.S. Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Department. I acknowledge that there are some infrastructure services that are critical to the nation’s survival, and are therefore of more significant importance However, for purposes of this article, we will concentrate on the conventional definition.

Historical benchmarks

It should first be recognized that infrastructure services have been traditionally financed, built, owned, and operated by governmental entities—federal, state, city, or local. This notion was originally inspired by none other than Thomas Jefferson, who in 1808 ordered his Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin to create a national plan to address the country’s needs related to ports, roads, and inland waterways. The object was to encourage settlement and facilitate trade, especially among independent farmers who were scattered across the land. Several states responded, including New York, resulting in the implementation of one of the most influential projects, the Erie Canal, that improved the development of commerce throughout the country.

In 1862, under President Lincoln, the Homestead Act was executed (granting 160 free acres to each family that agreed to farm them), and combined with the Pacific Railway Act, a national transport system was developed. As the years progressed, numerous other national imperatives were implemented wherein a nationwide system of state universities was instituted; irrigation river restoration and dam projects (undertaken under Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 (ultimately resulting in hydroelectric power) were created; and one of the most influential contributions was the National Toll Road and Free Road system (under Franklin D. Roosevelt) that became the basis for the post war development of the Interstate Highway system advanced by President Eisenhower.

America 2050 plan

Since this year is the bi-centennial of the Gallatin Plan, and the centennial of the Teddy Roosevelt initiative, The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation, formed a joint venture to “examine new strategies for investing in vital transportation water, and energy infrastructure systems to position America for equitable and prosperous economic growth.” The plan, titled America 2050, considers how to insure the country’s growth and development in the face of rapid population growth and demographic change in the 21 st Century. (It is both unfortunate and sad that neither the current administration nor Congress recognized the significance of the 100 and 200-year celebrations by forwarding a dramatic plan of their own—where is Thomas Jefferson when we need him?)

The introduction to the plan provides a very important lesson. It states: “The growth of this nation is due in part to far-sighted investments that built the nation’s canals, railroads, power generation projects, bridges, and roads, and protected the nation’s environmental heritage, including its forests, wetlands, coastlines, parks, drinking water, and clean air. America has a history of national plans that shaped development.”[My emphasis.]

It then points out that “America faces a host of challenges in the coming century, all of which will have profound impacts on the nation’s future growth and development. Global economic restructuring, rising fuel and household costs, climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, all require strategies to maximize the nation’s continued prosperity, opportunity and quality of life.”

Where is Thomas Jefferson when we need him?

It is the next paragraph however, that relates most closely to, and indeed confirms the essence of the Infrastructure Insanity headline above: “In the face of these challenges though, America is flying blind. No national strategy exists to build and manage the infrastructure systems needed to sustain inclusive economic growth and our competitive position in the global economy, and to secure a healthy environment for our children and grandchildren.” [My emphasis.]

Part II of this article will delineate what my second headline choice could have been—Infrastructure Inanities.


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