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Cafe Society to discuss the nation’s Infrastructure

By Staff | Feb 10, 2017

The Cafe Society discussion on Feb. 14 will focus on the nation’s infrastructure which often emerges in national political campaigns as a major issue, but usually with little result. The lament often heard is that “lack of shovel-ready projects” is the reason for failure to make substantial progress. The real reason probably is that most of the wide variety of essential functional capabilities needed to support our way of life were conceived, created, owned or controlled by somebody else. In essence, they represent a legacy created by other generations to fulfill their purposes or needs rather than those we might have at the moment.

Because of their magnitude in terms of physical size, complexity and cost their existence is normally evolutionary, and seldom fully emerges as originally envisioned. Further, the time required for successful development, or even significant enhancement of public infrastructure often exceeds the attention span of essential supporters whether they are engineers, financial beneficiaries, members of Congress or worse yet, the taxpayer. We have a perfect example right here in our own backyard in the “C and O Canal” which didn’t lack for financial incentives, innovation and technological development and resonance with national priorities but took too long. It was overtaken by a new era of railroads before it could be fully exploited.

These informal discussions are held from 8:30 to 10 a.m. each Tuesday morning in the Rumsey Room of the Shepherd University (SU) Student Center. They are an integral part of the SU Life Long Learning Program and are intended to facilitate a dialog on current issues between the students and older members of our community. There are no fees or registration requirements.

Cafe Society facilitator, Mike Austin commented, “Today we live in a comparatively fast-moving era where the rate of technological development often outpaces the speed with which we can react. The politicians are usually thinking in terms of Roosevelt-age ‘pick and shovel’ projects that would put laborers back to work or simply demand large amounts of manpower. However, only a comparatively small number of highly skilled operators and engineers would probably be needed along with their sophisticated equipment. If future infrastructure needs are to be properly addressed, a much longer and multi-disciplined planning horizon is needed. We are talking about building to demands for new capabilities and capacities that our nation will require 40 or 50 years from now. We will need infrastructure that will give us a competitive edge in the rapidly evolving world economy which we no longer dominate as we did in the post-World War II years. How many contentious elections and changes in Administrations is that? It is problematic because the constraints on building systems that can go operational and meet targeted needs and rise to the level of political and economic expectations will have to survive in a hostile legal and regulatory environment.

“The stand-off in North Dakota over the oil pipeline under the Missouri River will pale by comparison with battles for rights of way and imminent domain, and “states rights” (remember that phrase) and most certainly environmental concerns that may provide new imperatives. High on the list will be measures to ensure adequate supply of potable water, control of inescapable by-products, such as sewage and surface run-off from agriculture and industrial activities, mining and mineral extraction, top soil erosion, deforestation and air pollution.

“To make matters worse we aren’t even doing very well in maintaining existing infrastructure and have much site preparation (for lack of a better term) to do in order to remove the detritus and get down to a suitable foundation to build upon. Far too many infrastructure projects have been pursued without regard to other national considerations such as Corps of Engineers flood control policies, water and reclamation projects in our western states and lack of a competitively viable passenger rail system.”

Austin concluded by saying, “It will probably take some major crisis on the scale of the EXXON Valdez oil spill, another Hurricane Katrina, or long anticipated recurrence of the New Madrid earthquake to get the political resolve to do something. But we need a completely integrated long term planning and funding scheme that implements a national plan in terms of scale similar to our Social Security Administration but devoted to infrastructure. It will have to engage planning and projections now conducted by key departments and agencies unilaterally including: DOD, DHS, DOE, DOT, HHS, DOC, and other more specialized government components. DOS will have to be involved because in must include appropriate interface with other nations: Canada and Mexico to start with. Daunting as this may seem, we have already accomplished important building blocks working with our NATO allies in Civil Emergency Planning. The domestic interagency coordination procedures and many of the international equivalents already exist. And there is much to be learned from what other nations have done.

“German, Japanese, and Chinese rail systems are probably good examples, as are site preparations for any major international events such as the recent Olympics in Rio. We learned a tremendous amount when we hosted the Olympics in Atlanta. And there is much to be learned from Middle East desalination projects, or mining operation in far off places like South Africa and Australia. Even acknowledged failures such as the massive Soviet-era effort to build a controlled economy and supporting infrastructure throughout its extended empire could be very instructive. We must assume that our intelligence agencies have much of that data which might be turned into important lessons learned. It would be one small silver lining in the Trump-Putin relationship if it were to result in better access to such information. There are legitimate areas of mutual concern where cooperation would be appropriate. So, we want to talk about infrastructure, but in a much broader context than usual.”