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American bullet train
AP Photo/Amtrak
This way forward.
THE US DEPARTMENT OF INFRASTRUCTURE

Here’s what stands in the way of a one-hour train ride between Washington and New York

Norman F. Anderson
By Norman F. Anderson

How do we create a long-term infrastructure renaissance in the US?

Why is there is so much talk about it—as if we were actually going to do something—but so very little action? Why is there so little exciting innovation in an area so critical to our prosperity? Where are the maglevs, the beta-tests and the creative geniuses?

As one executive told me the other day: “Trying to get anything of significance off the ground is soul-destroying.”

Indeed, more than 75% of industry executives believe that US infrastructure is “deficient or seriously deficient,” according a recently released annual poll conducted by CG/LA Infrastructure. More than 80% say that we don’t have adequate financing. Nearly 80% say that we don’t maintain a pipeline of projects sufficient to keep pace with demand.

It gets worse. To the question of whether the country has an overall guiding vision—not exactly a hallmark of the US infrastructure marketplace over the last decade—2014 scores declined by 10% over 2013, and fully 38% since the 2010 survey.

The Bible says “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” We need to do something big, long-term and transformative. A good start would be the creation of a cabinet-level Secretary of Infrastructure, with an actual infrastructure budget. For good measure, let’s find someone who is an actual expert in roads and bridges, in water and waterways, in power and natural gas, and who is willing to drive rapid progress and energetic innovation across a broad-barreled industry that has not experienced a productivity increase in 60 years.

A Department of Infrastructure tasked with doubling the level of investment in infrastructure by $150 billion more per year, while doubling the productivity of that investment, would create a quantum leap in economic growth, direct job creation and confidence-inducing opportunity generation.

Those are measurable facts, which demand—from all of us—measurable action.

Doubling infrastructure investment (and doubling again the productivity of that investment) would launch us into a period of world-leading economic growth, and the accompanying revolution would create an industry in the US capable of driving the $2 trillion global infrastructure business.

The creation of a cabinet-level infrastructure department would generate five immediate outcomes.

First, we would be forced to create a vision for the future, escaping the trap of short-term political decision-making. The average politician’s career lasts about as long as an NFL lineman, and as such they only think two years ahead until the next election. The Golden Gate Bridge, our paean to our country, and to long-term imaginative thinking, is 80 years old and going strong.

Second, we would begin to prioritize strategic projects, those which are critical for growth and opportunity creation whether for our country as a whole (waterways, ports), or for our cities (transit, water/wastewater). We would begin to “think different,” to innovate, to solve mysteries such as why we can’t quickly build a maglev along the East Coast.

A New York company is reportedly working to build a maglev that would eventually run between New York City and Washington, DC in an hour, or about one-third the time of the current fastest Amtrak offering.

Company officials say that they could potentially finish the first 15-minute leg between Baltimore and Washington in 2024 should they clear all state and federal regulatory hurdles, according to press reports.

We need to choose the projects that will most quickly and productively make the future today’s reality, and that requires real innovation, driven by vision and made real through agile experimentation. Strategic projects would be marked “urgent” and prioritized for completion as a matter of national economic security. The current average 9.5 years to take a project from idea on the drawing board to shovel in the ground has to be reduced, as it has been in Canada, to three years.

Third, we would produce a corps of highly motivated, trusted and long-serving public professionals, just like we had during Kennedy’s Man on the Moon initiative, Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, or Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration. Think about the breakthroughs – in technology, finance, organization and management – that those programs drove.

The idea that the public sector is fundamentally bad and the private sector is good is just plain wrong. The public sector drives innovation and, with the right attitude, incubates innovation. A public sector without a vision of the long-term public good, and the leadership to get us there, is a spirit-crushing waste. A public sector with vision, will and competence, is a national treasure.

Fourth, we would bring technology into the equation, and we would do that along radically new avenues. That the infrastructure business has not seen productivity growth in 60 years is unacceptable. Rather than resisting new ideas, like a maglev experiment, or fast-track project approvals, we need to create an infrastructure culture that embraces inspiration.

Bringing citizens—the users!—into the process is essential. We have the processing and transparency tools to involve citizens at the very beginning of projects, enabling them to contribute to design, location and financing. Crowd-sourcing is a powerful resource in an incredibly well-educated country that we all but ignore. The Golden Gate Bridge design, for example, was crowd-sourced and came in at 16% of the professionally projected cost.

Fifth, we would stop eating the food off our children’s plates. Steps 1 through 4 would require a budget and public-private collaboration of the highest order. A concrete vision, with a glide path of project priorities, would broaden our horizons by reprioritizing current investment against guaranteed, measurable, future returns. A long-term infrastructure build, the ultimate in delayed gratification, would engender an enormous advantage for the next generation.

Infrastructure is iconic. It illustrates how we think about ourselves, and how the people we entrust with the public good—the politicians we elect—think about us. A federal infrastructure agency will enable the kind of long-term, productive and innovative endeavors that harnesses all of our energies and ideas.

We need to produce a real roadmap to the future in which we all participate.