The time for America's infrastructure renaissance is now

L. Joe Boyer | 05 Jan 2015 | Comments

For years, it’s been widely acknowledged that America has an infrastructure problem. From our roads and bridges, to our water and wastewater systems, to our power plants and electrical grids, and our ports that ship and receive goods around the world—the proper functioning of our infrastructure is critical to our health as a nation and should be on every American’s radar. In fact, 60 Minutes recently aired a segment titled Falling apart: America’s neglected infrastructure, which presented a sobering look at our nation’s infrastructure, hopefully increasing public awareness of this topic. Most people probably don’t know that the US has fallen to 16th in infrastructure as ranked by the World Economic Forum, or that almost one-third of our roadways are in disrepair and deemed dangerous by former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

As a nation, our attention to this looming crisis is long overdue. Perhaps the sheer size of our infrastructure problem and the cost to fix it (an estimated $3.6 trillion) prevents us from facing it head-on. Or perhaps, even in a delicate time of economic recovery, we don’t fully understand the high correlation between the health of our infrastructure and the economics of the country. But however we choose to look at it, or not look at it, the fact remains that our aging infrastructure is primed to be one of the biggest challenges we’ll face in this generation—and one of the most important to the future prosperity of our nation.

"The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’
One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.
In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity."
~John F. Kennedy

Yes, there is clear danger—the cost of paralysis is too great and the risk of catastrophe is too high. In 2013, the ASCE gave the low grade of D+ to the nation’s public infrastructure, stating the “condition and capacity are of significant concern with strong risk of failure”. Not exactly something you want to think about as you travel across a bridge, but a reminder that this issue is real and isn’t going to resolve itself. This challenge, which is truly a crisis, is also an opportunity—an opportunity for a great “Renaissance in American Infrastructure.” It’s an opportunity to rise to the occasion, and put new tools, technology, processes, and ideas to work. It’s an opportunity to create cities that function even better than before and benefit all who work and live in them.

Applying temporary fixes and patches—just enough to get by—is not sustainable and will not solve the problem. This will not create the prosperous future we all want for our children and future generations. Instead of limiting our creativity to the confines of the problem, we must lean on American ingenuity and innovation, putting our best designers, planners, and engineers to the task, while collaborating with our communities and elected officials.

Through Atkins’ Future Proofing Cities initiative, instead of evaluating infrastructure in separate silos (transportation, water infrastructure, energy, etc.), we look at our cities and their infrastructure as a symbiotic system—with each component working in harmony with each other, the environment, and its inhabitants. We also take a broad view, considering the policies, planning, and community participation needed to create cities that are resilient to changing climates, growing populations, and future needs. The opportunity is clear. Never before have we had access to the technology we now employ, giving us the ability to capture and analyze data to explore new possibilities and solve old problems in new ways. And our modern design and construction processes allow our investments to go further—from project concept through completion and beyond.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to participate on a panel at the 6th Annual North American Infrastructure Leadership Forum in Washington, DC. We discussed the findings of the Making the Grade Report – A National Six-Point Plan to Regain America’s Infrastructure Leadership. I was encouraged by and support this practical and elegantly crafted plan, which contains recommendations from experts in the infrastructure industry, local governments, professional organizations, think tanks, financial advisors, academic institutions, and others.

Indeed, there are hurdles that must be crossed—we must find new ways to finance infrastructure projects, and remove outdated, prohibitive regulations and policies that stifle innovation and collaboration. But with the awareness and involvement of our communities, America will make this a priority for our elected officials and demand this issue be resolved in our generation. The time for America’s Infrastructure Renaissance is now, and we’re proud to be a part of the solution.

How can you help bring awareness of both the danger and the opportunities to your circle of influence? It is a choice—either get involved or get comfortable sitting in traffic. Let’s choose to start a real conversation today.