Give Thanks for Infrastructure

As you travel over the river and through the woods to holiday events, take time to give thanks.  Give thanks for the extraordinary infrastructure that made the trip possible with relative ease.  Give thanks for the multiple distribution systems that made your destination warm, provided running water and filled the dinner table with safe food.

And for these great gifts, give thanks to the Greatest Generation.  Their vision and generosity made this infrastructure possible and created the future we now inhabit.  We’ve received a half century of benefits from their foresight.  

At the time these investments were made, the infrastructure typically had design life equal to that of its patrons.  A standard reservoir or dam was expected to provide 50–80 years of service.  And time marched on.  Usually built to last 50 years, the average bridge in our country today is 46 years old.  We have blissfully lived off our infrastructure capital and the turkey has come home to roost.

In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure-assigning a cumulative grade of D.  They estimated a need for a five-year investment of $2.2 trillion from all levels of government and the private sector to reverse course. The ASCE bluntly reported that decades of underfunding and inattention have jeopardized the ability of infrastructure to support our economy and facilitate our way of life.

I will spend this Thanksgiving (2012) with my dad, a farm boy, WWII Veteran and career public servant.  He is part of a generation, fueled by the GI Bill, given a shot at prosperity.  The GI Bill allowed him to be one of the first in his hometown to earn a college degree.  Profoundly impacted by itinerant Dustbowl fugitives stopping by the family farm looking to work for food, he obtained a degree in soil science.  That led to a job in the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) where he could work to prevent another Dustbowl.

Investment in education, infrastructure and public service paid forward.  Paying it forward was part of a generational ethic adopted by my dad, mother and their peers.  Paying it forward made possible the interstate highway system, safe, reliable drinking water, flood control and even the internet.  This infrastructure fueled opportunity and made possible an expanded American dream.

In these times, our infrastructure – roads, water, electricity distribution, phones, etc. – are part of our daily life.  Amenities are so common we only notice them when they are absent.  Ironically, as invisible as infrastructure’s become, we are increasingly dependent on it.   To test this theory, scan your news source for stories of skewered public servants overseeing a system failure.

It’s time to reconsider our course.  As much as it seems logic and pure fear should drive action, it is not enough nor even credible.  After 50 years of generally good performance, the public servant predicting infrastructure doom is easily disregarded.   What should we do?

  1. Begin with thanks. Start talking about the great gifts we have received and how they benefited us.  Let’s make infrastructure visible.
  2. Change the paradigm of performance.  Low expenditures at the expense of maintenance or investment in new infrastructure is fundamentally more costly than responding to inevitable (now routine) emergencies.  We need to introduce more accountability into our equations by illustrating the costs of failures and non-action.
  3. Begin framing our own legacy.  What do we want our generation(s) to be known for?  How will our commitment to the future be fulfilled?  Fifty years from now, will another generation be grateful for the investments we made today?

Meanwhile, we have plenty to be thankful for.  Happy Thanksgiving

Photos courtesy of http://history.utah.gov/experience_history/glimpses/building_roads_and_bridges.htmland http://www.corpconstruction.com/gallery/
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