Bring up the issue of infrastructure and one thing starts to become very clear not long after the discussion begins: the topic itself is complex, if not complicated.
It encompasses opinions from a variety of interest groups, public policy experts and even academics, all offering a perspective on where society has landed and where it should be headed.
Those perspectives are hardly unanimous, perhaps skewed by the particular professional interests involved or simply a factor of just how big the topic appears to have become in a world where there are more places needing infrastructure investment than the resources required to deliver on those pressing needs.
But here’s at least a thought as we begin to tackle the issue: any discussion around the topic of infrastructure must first deal with what’s actually being talked about.
In a city like Flint, Mich., the most obvious slice of the infrastructure pie may be dealing with the complex set of pipes that residents once took for granted to deliver water that was safe to drink.
Clearly those assumptions have been upended with the crisis enveloping the city, although it may have also raised questions that other communities, in Michigan and elsewhere, may not have thought they’d ever have to ask.
When infrastructure is discussed, one way of dissecting the issue may be to divide the category into what we can see—the bridges and roads that all rely on to some extent—and what remains hidden from view—the labyrinth of pipes that deliver water and take away sewage, not to mention the various utilities that bring us power and connectivity.
From the perspective of the industry that has perhaps the most vested interest in the development of infrastructure, the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association (MITA) focuses on both roads and the underground elements.
While the issue of roads appears to be at least temporarily dealt with, largely the result of a $1.2 billion annual funding package that passed last fall, the “below the surface” issues have not.
A glaring issue
An issue that Lance Binoniemi, MITA’s vice president of government affairs, calls “one of the most glaring” is that many communities don’t actually know the extent of any problems that may exist.
“Some communities are more sophisticated and they know what assets they have and the condition of those,” said Binoniemi. “But some, like Flint, either ignored the issue or don’t have the resources to do the research.”
That, Binoniemi says, must change if scenarios like Flint aren’t to be repeated elsewhere.
“The state needs to start looking at how we develop a system that would not only catalogue the assets, but rate them and put the necessary tools in place to fix those assets,” he said.
But who is actually in charge of coming up with such a solution?
Another good question
“At least five years ago, the assumption was that local government was taking care of it,” says Binoniemi, adding that roughly 25 percent of state residents rely on systems that deliver water from wells and deal with sewer through septic systems.
Clearly, that assumption, at least from the perspective of those directly affected by the Flint crisis, can no longer be relied upon, although Binoniemi acknowledged that the vast majority of the public may still take for granted that their government is doing what it needs to do to keep them safe.
“It wasn’t even a case in Flint until the water became brown,” he notes.
The right answer may be that all three levels of government have a role to play, says Binoniemi.
But first a community has to determine the specific extent of the problems that exist.
That role, as advocated by MITA, should be one for the state to take on.
“Assessment is probably something that should have been a state issue in the beginning,” said Binoniemi.
Report card woes
Another group that is “invested” in solving the infrastructure problem, both across the nation and in Michigan, is the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
Ron Brenke, who is executive director of the ASCE’s Michigan section, referred to a “report card” issued by his organization in 2009 that gives the state an overall “D” grade in a variety of categories, including those affecting drinking water, as well as roads and bridges (the full report can be seen at bit.ly/29F0iFd).
While perhaps not as noteworthy as roads and water-related infrastructure, the ASCE report does raise caution when it comes to structures like dams. There are 2,581 in the state, with 90 percent reaching their life expectancy by 2020.
Consider the impact of one failed structure: the 2003 collapse of the Silver Lake Dam led to $100 million in damages and economic losses of $1 million a day.
Infrastructure in the state, the ASCEMI report warns, is in a “dire” condition.
Brenke says that while the ASCE undertook a minor update of the report in 2011, there were no changes of any note when it came to investments that would have raised the grade.
Nationwide, the U.S. as a whole is just as exposed, says the ASCE in its 2013 infrastructure report.
The group says a whopping $3.6 trillion would be required by 2020 (less than four years from now) to bring the nation’s infrastructure up to standard.
Like the Michigan section of ASCE, the national report grades various sectors of infrastructure, with the highest score being a “B minus” for solid waste. The vast majority (11 out of 16 categories) received a grade of “D”—poor.
What will it take to do better?
As far as drinking water is concerned, Michigan has a chronic deficit when it comes to infrastructure funding, perhaps as high as $583 million a year, according to a report by Public Sector Consultants Inc., commissioned by MITA.
An academic perspective
The hard answer to the question of who will pay is a relatively easy one for someone like Elisabeth Gerber to answer.
Gerber, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and research associate at the Center for Political Studies at U-M, says “at the end of the day, local governments have to put up money and spend on things that you don’t see.”
And that creates political problems for those making the decisions.
“It’s hard for any elected official, certainly local ones, to make decisions that will involve spending on road improvements that are going to benefit people a long time from now,” she said.
“Voters want stuff now,” she said. “And infrastructure, by definition, is long term.”
In other words, the pressure for a politician to get re-elected runs counter to an argument that involves spending for something that isn’t going to produce immediate benefits.
Another facet to the problem of infrastructure investment is that the solutions don’t fall neatly into one category that would naturally encompass a single level of government.
Gerber uses transportation infrastructure as one example.
“There’s a big effort to get people on the same page,” she observes. “What would you do if you had money to invest in a regional transportation system?”
Pointing to the historic building of the Interstate Highway System, a project that flowed from a perceived national security imperative, modern infrastructure investment may come from the level of government most likely to be immune from short-term pressures related to the election cycle.
“The executive branch of the federal government doesn’t have the same pressures as local governments do,” said Gerber. “That’s part of the argument for taking it out of the control of local governments and giving it to someone else at the highest (level of authority).”
Another academic with an opinion on infrastructure funding in the state (and beyond) is Igor Vojnovic, an associate professor at Michigan State University.
Vojnovic says there is a “serious deficiency” in infrastructure investment in the state, to the point where it has resulted in at least one company, Volkswagen of America, leaving the area.
He is referring to a 2007 decision by VW to move its U.S. headquarters from Auburn Hills, Mich., to Herndon, Va., as evidence of a bigger problem than that represented by roads and underground infrastructure.
“They talked about lack of adequate airports, schools and working relationships with universities,” said Vojnovic.
Publicly, VW had cited at the time a desire to be “closer to customers.”
But Vojnovic says it is infrastructure that is the driving force when it comes to economic development.
It’s a “big picture” perspective, to be certain, but one that does have at least a semblance of logic behind the argument.
“If you look at a gathering or convention where more than 1,000 people are going to show up, that’s not something that every city can handle, just when it comes to hotels,” said Vojnovic.
“There’s a lot of overbuilding going on,” he adds, referring to a handful of states that are engaged in a highly competitive positioning. “Michigan is not one of them.”
Indeed, Vojnovic makes the argument that Michigan’s competitive advantage, over time, has deteriorated, largely because of its failure as a region to invest in infrastructure.
If that sounds harsh, Vojnovic holds out hope that a reversal of a decades-long trend toward suburbanization could result in significant environmental, economic and social benefits “from encouraging more compact urban forms.”
Examples of vibrant, mid-density town centers include communities such as Ann Arbor, Birmingham, East Lansing and Grand Rapids, areas that are considered as having some of the highest real estate values in the state.
That said, Vojnovic has said that some of the basic development characteristics that have attracted people to those communities, including mixed building use, on-street parking and the use of trees, street furniture and public art along streets, may not be legal everywhere.
Vojnovic argues that for Michigan to be more competitive within the new global economy requires greater effort toward reducing excessive urban decentralization. “It is not only that compact cities are more efficient in their use of infrastructure and resources, but ultimately, the broader economic competitiveness of regions is dependent on ensuring strong urban cores.”
Another representative of MITA —the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association — is executive vice president Mike Nystrom, who says that infrastructure in Michigan and elsewhere is “alarmingly old and in desperate need of repairs, upgrades or total replacement.”
He blames generations of Michigan politicians for failing “to adequately maintain our drinking water systems, wastewater treatment plants, dams, and roads and bridges.”
Nystrom also quotes estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that suggest some $2.14 billion is required to bring Michigan’s water related infrastructure up to standard.
Currently, communities around the state face the challenge of maintaining and updating infrastructure, with most drinking and wastewater systems built between 50 and 100 years ago. Some older cities have systems that date back to the 1800s.
Back to the core “what do we do now” issue, U-M’s Gerber says the infrastructure issue, in Michigan and nationwide, may best be handled by starting with an understanding of the nature of the problem itself.
“It’s not a solution,” she says, referring to the idea of having the federal government take the lead on infrastructure investment. “It’s a political problem and that’s why it’s in politics. We can agree on what needs to be done as far as infrastructure spending is concerned, but as soon as you get into the details, who pays for it and what it looks like, it’s like every other political problem—you solve it through politics.”
In an essay written last year by Rosabeth Moss Kanter as part of Infrastructure Week (held in May), the Harvard Business School professor pondered a seeming lack of urgency on the issue.
Even as she wrote, she had put aside a book project about leadership to answer that question, “I realized that infrastructure led me straight back to leadership, but of a bigger kind—leadership to look beyond one’s own business to think about solving big problems.”
Kanter noted that “when the pain gets bad enough, people will support change.”
But then she countered that thought. “I’m not sure that’s enough. Change requires a vision of the future sufficiently compelling that people will overcome inertia and support investment. Change requires an awareness of common fate – that everyone shares a piece of the suffering but can benefit from contributing to improvements.”
And then she expressed a sense of hope that change will, ultimately, prevail.
“American strengths in innovation and entrepreneurship offer numerous possibilities for upgrading infrastructure and the transportation sector offers numerous possibilities for exciting business investments, if leaders see the future,” Kanter wrote. “Revitalized cities can have people-friendly streets, smarter roads containing sensors to improve traffic flow and spot repair needs, vehicles that can prevent accidents, apps to summon cars or find parking, as well as tell blind people when they’ve wandered outside the lines at a street crossing (I call this a seeing-eye phone). Data analytics, such as the Weather Company’s Total Turbulence package, can reduce weather-related flight delays by providing real-time weather data.”
Kanter also points to a “promising” degree of cross-sector innovation, one being the experiment in Oregon that involves having motorists pay a “vehicle-miles-traveled” fee that would replace gasoline taxes for roads and bridges.
Here Kanter seems to agree with U-M’s Gerber on the role of the federal government, although she notes that “a Congress elected every two years can’t be expected to rally behind raising taxes to pay for big projects.”
Kanter also writes that leaders must step in to give people reason for hope.
“To succeed, leaders need inspiring visions, strategic thinking, openness to innovation, and change processes that involve coalition building and uniting constituencies behind common goals — the essence of leadership. It can come from corporate chiefs, enlightened officials, tech entrepreneurs, consumers, citizens, and activists who are informed and motivated to seek change. It’s time to move.”
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series looking at Michigan’s infrastructure and the individuals and businesses that play a part in it.