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Why Canít We Move? Solving Americaís Infrastructure Problems


Suffering was acute in Greater Boston this past winter. … [T]he worst blow was the shutdown of the region’s famed public transit system, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). …

Infrastructure failures can always be blamed on poor management. A panel convened by newly elected Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker pointed to financial mismanagement and governance weaknesses behind the T shutdown. But chronic underinvestment is clearly a major culprit. The MBTA, America’s first and oldest subway, has long operated with aging systems that politicians felt taxpayers were reluctant to pay to renew or reinvent.

The T’s winter shutdown is just one instance of numerous U.S. infrastructure problems that stem from a failure to invest. … By 2023, one in four U.S. bridges, which are typically designed to serve for 50 years, will be more than 65 years old.

The average American commuter wastes 38 hours a year sitting in unnecessary traffic—and undoubtedly more than that in the Northeast ­Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. In May 2013, a commuter train crash in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which injured 76 ­people, closed all eastbound rail traffic between New York and ­Boston. An estimated 30,000 people who normally took the train to work took to the highways instead, exacerbating already-legendary traffic jams. The problem was traced to a single broken rail, although that was just one of many trouble spots resulting from years of deferred maintenance of components dating to the late 1800s, such as overhead catenary wiring that is more than 110 years old. Upgrades have been under construction for 20 years.

It could take big bucks just to repair, let alone modernize, existing infrastructure—almost $2 trillion during the next five years, according to estimates by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Delays in every transportation mode bring costs to the economy and lost opportunities for productivity and ­quality of life … .

I discovered the mind-numbing magnitude of these problems after embarking on a nearly two-year effort to understand transportation and related communications infrastructure issues by conducting interviews and site visits across America and by convening a national leadership summit as part of the Harvard Business School U.S. Competitiveness Project … . In the 2013-14 survey, business leaders identified infrastructure as a major area in which ­America lags: 82 percent of respondents said that U.S. transportation infrastructure had not improved or was getting worse than it was three years earlier—and a majority believed it was falling behind that in other advanced economies. …

The state of transportation infrastructure touches every important societal issue: health and safety, air quality, family budgets, productivity and use of time, inequality and social mobility, the nature of cities, jobs for today and jobs for the future. Public transportation in particular, I found, is an important ride out of poverty and into the middle class if it provides access to jobs and education.

Change requires political will, public support, and private sector savvy. In the absence of a strong national will, governors and mayors are taking the lead. In Chicago, the $3.2 billion ­CREATE (Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency) Program, conceived more than a dozen years ago with a push from the business community, is building dozens of new under- and overpasses to segregate freight rail from passenger rail and vehicles, while installing a computerized control system to move trains more safely and efficiently. (The overall project remains partially completed and partially funded.) Mayor Rahm Emanuel, meanwhile, has introduced America’s first metropolitan infrastructure bank, the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, to attract private investment for vital city assets… . California Governor Jerry Brown is championing high-speed rail. Atlanta’s airport modernization is accompanied by mass-transit connections. Mayors are asking cars to move over to return streets to pedestrians, bicycles, and buses.

Experts estimate that private capital, e.g. from long-term investors such as life-insurance and pension funds, could provide as much as $2.5 trillion for infrastructure globally by 2030—and the United States could be a major beneficiary. Well-conceived and executed public-private partnerships can deliver much-needed public goods at low cost while providing attractive opportunities for private investment. …

Beyond desperately needed modernization of physical infrastructure, we must invest to take advantage of new technological opportunities to improve transportation and enhance our economic prospects … .

Finding the will for infrastructure investment requires a new national narrative. I urge a focus on mobility as essential to opportunity. Rebuilding infrastructure and reinventing it using new technologies are essential to a new American Dream for the twenty-first century. Baby boomers who enjoyed the fruits of post-World War II investments must ensure that their children and grandchildren are not left stranded by winter storms or a failure to reinvest. Leaders must inspire by invoking a higher purpose and a vision that people can endorse. We need to tell the positive stories: how regions are taking matters into their own hands, entrepreneurs are helping us innovate our way out of traffic jams, and private-sector leaders are working with public authorities for the common good.

Do we want twenty-first-century transportation and infrastructure to be people-centered, technology-enabled, environmentally friendly, opportunity-focused, safe, and efficient? Then let’s get moving.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is Arbuckle professor of business administration and chair and director of Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative. This article first appeared in the July-August 2015 issue of Harvard ­Magazine. Based on Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead by ­Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Article and book copyright © 2015 by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Reprinted and excerpted with permission of the ­publisher, W. W. ­Norton & ­Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

This “Commentary” section features different points of view from various sources to enhance readers’ broad awareness of themes and views that affect public transportation.

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