- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Feb. 17, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Through a combination of tax relief and record-setting domestic spending totaling $787.2 billion, the act is designed to jump-start the nation’s economy while securing 3.5 million American jobs over the next two years.

Importantly, the act also targets massive funding to repair, modernize and improve the operational capacity and efficiency of our critical infrastructure and supporting systems.

Mr. Obama and his key agency heads now are working diligently to meet the tight deadlines set by Congress in the act regarding spending plans and discretionary grant criteria.

Moving out on this important task, the president and his team can demonstrate leadership and maximize impact early on by bridging two fundamental issues championed during the campaign — rapid investment in modernizing critical infrastructure and ensuring that security and safety are “built in” to all new investments to promote resilience.

Implementation of a stimulus package that neglects to fuse investments and prioritize projects according to risk-based security and safety considerations would be regrettable.

Unfortunately, with the exception of mass transit and port security grants, the act is mostly silent regarding the notion of risk as a construct to guide direct funding, as well as the allocation of federal grant dollars to state and local capital investment projects.

Instead, the act maintains a nearly exclusive focus on projects generated from the “bottom up” that are “shovel ready” — generally signifying anticipated project completion within the next two to three years.

As we now know, the structural collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 was a key national wake-up call. We should look to the funds in the act that target infrastructure investment as an opportunity to respond to this call using a systematic and measured national approach — not merely pump more money into the piecemeal approach of the past.

Across America, a large number of our publicly owned highways, bridges, tunnels, dams, water and wastewater systems are worn out and in desperate need of overhaul. Time, weather, Mother Nature and usage far beyond that envisioned in original engineering designs weaken them more with each passing year.

Adding to this dilemma is the fact that our critical infrastructures represent highly lucrative terrorist targets due to the catastrophic human life and economic consequences that could result from a successful attack launched against the right target at the right time.

Unfortunately, a grossly inadequate lack of capital reinvestment and the fact that no one has really “owned” this problem in a strategic sense over the years have greatly exacerbated this situation.

Additionally, the authorities, capacities and resources required to fix the problem are splintered across innumerable federal, state and local agencies. And in too many cases, the resources pushed into capital overhaul of our infrastructure have not been allocated wisely.

Ironically, it has proven much easier to design and deploy huge infrastructure projects such as the Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways than to provide for their sustained care and feeding over the long haul.

Fortunately, help is on the way through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. However, as we go down the road to specific program implementation, it’s important to highlight that how the money is spent is just as important as how much is spent and how quickly it can be spent. Simply put, infrastructure-related stimulus funds should not only help jump-start the economy but also should buy down long-neglected safety and security risks across the country.

With Mr. Obama’s renewed emphasis on transparency and accountability, every new infrastructure investment should be made with a strategic view toward ensuring the continued growth, security and safety of America.

Unfortunately, the act’s nearly exclusive focus on the expediency of proposed project completion to the neglect of risk may help push money out more quickly to more people, but what will we have achieved at the end of the day using such an approach? When the dust settles, many of our most acute infrastructure problems and security risks may remain unfixed.

My prescription involves a simple, three-pronged approach that combines timely execution of funds made available by the act with a careful mapping of projects proposed for funding against existing national risk criteria.

First, the Obama administration should work collaboratively across key agencies to push integrated risk-based criteria that will govern how the funds will be prioritized, allocated, distributed and accounted for. This process can be accelerated using data and investment priorities already assessed and tracked individually by the departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and others.

Second, the funding of individual projects should be linked to an all-encompassing national infrastructure strategic investment plan that pulls everything together — compounding the value of every dollar spent.

Third, to get control of this problem over the long haul, a full-time strategic “owner” of this effort — perhaps a permanent bipartisan presidential commission composed of members representing various jurisdictional levels and functional areas — should be identified to help set priorities, track results, project expenditures and lead follow-on planning over time.

We will most likely never get another comprehensive shot at overhauling our nation’s critical infrastructure — so we’ve got to get it right this time. Let’s take the opportunity now to move beyond the piecemeal approach of the past. It’s time to create jobs, modernize and improve our critical infrastructure where it counts the most, and make America a safer and more secure place.

Robert B. Stephan is chairman of the National Infrastructure Institute and is former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection for the Department of Homeland Security.

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