Vanishing Point

RAPPORT // Is There a Better Alternative to the Trump Infrastructure Plan?

Posted by Deb Westphal - Feb 28, 2018 8:40:00 AM

Rapport - Deb Westphal

Welcome to Rapport. As the name implies, this blog is a conversation. Once every month, we will explore foundational shifts and open discussion about current issues and trends. I will introduce perspectives grown from years of work with the founder of our eponymous firm, executive experience, global adventures, and personal relationships with some of the greatest thinkers and leaders of our era. My hope is that you will find these posts interesting, empathetic, and worth discussing.


I begin most mornings the same way, reaching for my phone to check the news missed while I slept. President Trump’s $1.5T Infrastructure Plan was the prevalent headline the morning of February 11th. While scrolling through the different perspectives of what the plan means, Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again started to play in my head. “I don't know where I'm goin', But I sure know where I've been…Here I go again…” The question that immediately came to mind was how the Trump plan would be different from the previous Obama and Bush Infrastructure plans. Haven’t we been down this road before?

 

After reading through the 55 pages to see if there is anything significantly different in this administration’s approach to solving the most pressing issues facing our infrastructure, my major takeaway is this plan is more of the same. Besides advertising a giant funding number, the primary focus of the plan seems to continue the emphasizing and prioritization of moving accountability for infrastructure from the federal government to state and local governments.

 

The plan is full of equations for funding distribution and “if this...then that,” geared towards individual infrastructure sectors. Nowhere is there support, tools, decision-making algorithms to help with understanding the future problems associated with our infrastructure, new emerging infrastructures or the interdependencies of siloed infrastructure sectors.

“This bill’s going to help modernize the highway system and improve quality of life for a lot of people."

  - President Bush, 2005 Transportation Bill

 

Given the proposed spending, I wonder: should we go back and look at the results from the $305B bill President Obama signed in 2015 to fund roads, bridges and rail lines? The five-year infrastructure bill was intended to fix the transportation infrastructure. Or what would a review of the $286.4B Transportation bill President Bush signed in 2005, promising modernization and improved quality of life for Americans tell us?

 

Reviewing the Progress to Date

After over a half of trillion dollars of funding, how has our transportation infrastructure improved? Did the efforts advance any grades in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure?

“In each of ASCE’s six Report Cards, the Society found that these same problems persist. Our nation’s infrastructure is aging, underperforming, and in need of sustained care and action.”

- ASCE Report Card for America’s Infrastructure 

Every four years, the ASCE releases a comprehensive assessment of the condition and needs of the U.S infrastructure. Over the past four report cards, grades for roads has stayed steady at a D-, while grades for bridges improved meagerly from a C to a C+. The trend for rail is a somewhat positive story – advancing from C- to a B.  However, the summary grade across all infrastructures has mainly stayed consistent the past 10 years at a D+. On their website, the ASCE states, “In each of ASCE’s six Report Cards, the Society found that these same problems persist. Our nation’s infrastructure is aging, underperforming, and in need of sustained care and action.”

 

Seeking a Different Kind of Solution

Might it be we are looking at the problem wrong? Maybe we are chasing an unachievable outcome. Perhaps we have a more significant opportunity to take a different approach – one that is future-focused, sensitive to emerging infrastructures, and cognizant of the growing interdependencies within current infrastructures.

 

Why is it that after so much attention and money allocated and spent on fixing the issues of our infrastructure, the problems persist or in many cases are worse than ever? 

As infrastructure (d)evolves, how we address it also must change. Infrastructure sectors are merging, morphing and becoming much more interdependent. Infrastructure sectors are changing – sector boundaries are shifting. For example, as the telecommunications sector rolls out 5G, they should be considering the implications of increased stress on our power grids. Also, wireless technologies are morphing with advanced materials and ubiquitous sensor technologies enabling smart infrastructures like smart highway systems, building materials, and cities with autonomous vehicles. These and other complex interdependencies demand we rethink how we define, prioritize, assess and modernize infrastructures over the next five to ten years. Is it time to reimagine what even constitutes an infrastructure sector?

 

The current Trump bill does nothing to address the real future we face. Our federal government has an opportunity to develop the thought leadership, analytical tools, decision-making forums needed to secure a better infrastructure future. Ideally, we will see politicians working in communion with the innovative thinkers and stewards of the future who offer a different approach, and with the critical infrastructure industry leaders who can advance the proposed changes.

 

Specific opportunities exist to make real progress:

  • Establish a knowledge integration center reporting to the White House to analyze, coordinate, and integrate the nation’s knowledge about modernizing current and supporting emerging infrastructure.
  • Facilitate enhanced thinking across academic, government and commercial organizations to develop prioritized frameworks that take into account the conditions and interdependencies that will strengthen future infrastructure.
  • Define and address how different rates of change of industry and government create desynchronization and impact the ability of the government to keep pace with infrastructure needs of the future.

 

Our federal government has an opportunity to take these first steps towards truly improving our infrastructure for today and future generations. Those steps will require them to act with authority and thought leadership. Doing so likely means slowing down to speed up so we can do the headwork before the footwork.

 

In the meantime, let’s stop allocating money to address the problems that have yet to be collectively identified. Let’s pursue the vision of what our infrastructure ecosystem needs to look like in the future. Once that’s in place, we can build the plan for how to get there.

 

Perhaps there is wisdom in those Whitesnake song lyrics – “I don't know where I'm goin', But I sure know where I've been…Here I go again…” Instead of continuing to invest in patching past weaknesses, let’s invest in the analytical tools, collaborative forums and thought leadership to imagine, understand, and then build the future.

 

Deb Westphal

Deb Westphal

As CEO of Toffler Associates, Deborah brings skills and insights honed over 30 years working with some of the top minds and leaders of governments and Fortune 100 companies. Deborah has an MBA from Webster University and a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Mexico, and has completed extensive continuing education with Harvard Business School and Wharton Business School. She is also a member of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

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