September 29, 2005 - From the September, 2005 issue

Why Infrastructure Matters: The Need to Invest in Infrastructure

The well-chronicled devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina has put new focus on essential elements of public infrastructure that would have been considered obscure or even banal when the summer began. Yet, now the expenditure of billions of dollars on preventative maintenance looks to many like a sound investment. Though Southern California does not necessarily worry about hurricanes and levees, a host of other natural and man-made dangers threatens the countless bridges, pipelines, and structures that might not have been properly built, inspected, and retrofitted. In this exclusive essay for MIR, Richard Little, director of Keston Institute for Infrastructure at the University of Southern California, explains why hope, complacency, and even budgetary concerns do not provide adequate reasons for deferring preventative maintenance.

Richard Little

There are some sobering lessons to be learned from the catastrophe in New Orleans. First, homeland security is about more than terrorism. Second, if we don't sustain our critical infrastructures, they may fail just when we need them most. Over the past four years, we have learned as a nation that tragedy comes in many guises and can strike anyone-anywhere-at any time. The events that unfolded in New Orleans in the past weeks make it abundantly clear just how important infrastructure is to modern society. For the first time in our history, we have watched what happens when people are forced to live for an extended period without the safe drinking water and reliable electricity, communications, and mobility that modern infrastructure provides.

In California, we face a broad array of hazards that could cause critical systems to fail and cascade into a New Orleans-level disaster. In the case of New Orleans, an extreme natural event was compounded by the failure of a critical infrastructure element-the levee system designed to keep the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River out of the city. Here in Los Angeles we only have to look back to the near-failure of the Van Norman Dam in 1971 or the disruption of public safety and economic activity caused by the collapse of multiple freeway ramps and overpasses during the Northridge earthquake in 1994 to create similar scenarios of cascading failure. The potential for concurrent loss of power, communications, mobility, public safety, and healthcare facilities following an extreme event is very real but is not a foregone conclusion. Although we can't prevent the occurrence of natural hazards, we possess, and can employ, appropriate techniques, technologies, and institutions to implement a sensible and effective program for protecting critical infrastructure from their effects.

In many ways, physical infrastructure is much like a living thing which goes through a process of creation, growth, maturation, decline, and death. Unlike natural systems, though, physical systems cannot sustain themselves; they must be renewed from without in the form of maintenance, repair, renewal, and replacement on a more or less continuous basis. These sustaining actions require us to invest capital, materials, labor and other resources. Depriving a physical system of funding for maintenance and repair, for example, will have a similar effect to depriving a living organism of food or water-it will decline and ultimately, die.

Despite our obvious dependence on infrastructure and the services it provides, we are skeptical of calls for increased investment to maintain existing systems and build new ones to replace the old. We balk at providing the funding for this or that agency and don't seem to find it illogical to argue against paying for infrastructure while still demanding its services. Unfortunately, the warning signs of infrastructure in distress are subtle. They are often missed because of cutbacks in funds for routine inspection, maintenance, and repair. This fosters a "tipping point" situation for failure where once it begins, it proceeds rapidly and irreversibly. In other words, once the levee breaks or the bridge is falling, it is too late to consider repairs.

This is not new information. Those forced to operate systems on shoestring budgets have known for decades just how vulnerable infrastructure is to chronic disinvestment. The National Academy of Sciences and others have published numerous reports calling for more enlightened investment policies for infrastructure, a truly national asset. At the same time, the current Administration's own science advisor, John Marburger has warned about the interdependencies among infrastructure and their potential for the sort of cascading failure we've witnessed in New Orleans. None of these many warnings have been heeded.


Just over a year ago, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana noted for the New Orleans Times-Picayune that, "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us." We all know that life is about trade-offs and some are very hard. However, shortchanging the New Orleans levees in the hope that nothing bad will happen now looks, in the words of a courtroom TV drama, more like "depraved indifference" than "benign neglect."

Now that something very bad has happened, we are awash in recrimination and finger pointing. The simple truth is that our basic systems are at risk from many threats, some of which we do not yet foresee. Researchers here at USC have looked at the region's vulnerability to a major disruption of the San Pedro port complex, whether caused by an earthquake, tsunami, or terrorist attack. Regardless of the cause, the projected impact is profound. Similarly, there are critical transportation, energy, and water supply links in Southern California that if destroyed or damaged could have regional and statewide impacts that far exceed the immediate loss of service. The levees around Sacramento, which protect many thousands of homes and residents and have been shown to be seismically vulnerable, are old, of dubious pedigree, and in need of repair. We need to anticipate and plan for a full range of threats to our physical infrastructures, design systems that are inherently safer and more robust, invest aggressively in their maintenance, and be prepared to restore them rapidly when they fail.

The task of ensuring the sustainability of California's critical systems will be long, arduous, and costly. However, as we have just seen, failing to do so ultimately could prove to be far more detrimental to our long term economic and physical security and overall quality of life. As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times regarding airport security shortly after the 9/11 attacks, ‘‘If we continue to nickel-and-dime crucial public services, we may find-as we did last week-that we have nickel-and-dimed ourselves to death." Hopefully, in Los Angeles, and in the rest of California, we will take the longer view and invest wisely in our critical systems.


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