Roads crumble, bridges fall. It is not that the United States cannot maintain, improve, and build more infrastructure. It is that so many people believe it is too difficult because of these myths. The myths have to be debunked to allow new ways of thinking.
Much of the media and political handwringing about the United States’ seeming inability to maintain resilient infrastructure is based on false assumptions, which allow industry and political leaders to shrug off responsibility and create a cynical public that sees no alternative to continued deterioration and lack of preparedness. These false assumptions, these myths, need to be debunked so the nation can think and act anew.
Myth 1: The Government Does Not Have Enough Money – Part I
Government is about leadership. Sometimes this includes spending money. But many of governments’ most effective, successful, (and therefore little-known) programs involve very little or no money and a lot of leadership. Leadership through good policy is often codified in best practices, standards, and regulations. The nation’s electrical grid is a good example. Governments set standards, but the system is built, operated, and expanded with nongovernment funds. Admittedly, many question whether the standards that have been set provide the needed resilience. If they do not, that is because of leadership issues, not a lack of government funds.
Myth 2: The Government Does Not Have Enough Money – Part II
Sometimes it is appropriate or necessary for citizens to devote some of their common funds (government money) to a particular effort. After all, if a project must be done, then citizens should be willing to “put some of their money where their mouths are.” In most cases, though, government is not the best choice for building and operating infrastructure, and does not need to pay the whole bill. Public-private partnerships have successfully leveraged private capital, efficiency, and innovation for a wide variety of infrastructure projects from housing to highways. Sometimes the government just contributes idle property or equipment, sometimes it agrees to purchase services provided by the infrastructure. Each case is unique.
When the notorious thief Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he famously replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Despite a huge federal budget, most U.S. money is still in the hands of the commercial and private sectors. Americans should go where the money is for building and maintaining infrastructure.
Myth 3: The Government Does Not Have Enough Money – Part III
In government, when an issue is important enough, there is always enough money. The federal budget is measured in trillions of dollars and many states in tens of billions. If money is really needed, it is often a matter of making tradeoffs (again a leadership issue). The challenge at all levels for infrastructure projects, though, is communicating an issue or project’s importance. Engineers and technologists often speak in data and numbers, while policy makers tend to communicate with stories and examples. The key to prioritizing infrastructure is using good data to create compelling narratives so needs can be prioritized properly.
Citizens also have the option of pooling more of their money for the common good through user fees or taxes. Perhaps the nation has been underpaying for infrastructure and services for decades. It could be time to step up and “make things right.” Stealing from the next generation would be shameful.
Myth 4: Infrastructure Is an Expense
To many people, this myth seems to be an obvious truth. But there is a profound difference between “expenses” and “investments,” whether in personal life, business, or government. Good infrastructure projects are investments that pay back dividends every day. Paying for infrastructure must not be thought of in the same category as day-to-day expenses. Most businesses have capital budgets to help them make the distinction between expense and investment. So too should all governments.
Myth 5: The Cost of Resilience to Those Who Provide Infrastructure & Critical Services Has to Be Considered
This is probably the worst of the myths. What must be considered instead is the ultimate cost of non-resilient infrastructures. Those who provide essential infrastructure and services do so by public license. A license is granted to a business because it is in the best interest of the public. Allowing businesses to operate in a way that is not in the public’s interest simply does not make sense. If resilience requirements are applied equally to all, none will be at a competitive disadvantage. If the cost of some infrastructure services increase, citizens should be pleased that the true cost of the service is being paid and is helping ensure the nation is getting what it really needs.
Americans have been thinking about paying for infrastructure the same way they think about paying for a dinner out on Saturday night. However, infrastructure affects everyone, and pays everyone back, directly or indirectly, every day – and there is always one or more source of funds for that. It is time to change the thinking and put infrastructure at the top of the list, instead of the bottom.
Dana A. Goward
Dana A. Goward is the president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, a scientific and educational charity in northern Virginia. He spent several decades as a first responder piloting Coast Guard helicopters, and was serving as the maritime navigation authority for the United States when he retired from federal service.