With the U.S. Congress in the middle of a debate over the massive economic stimulus package, it seems likely that as much as one-quarter of the proposed $800 billion-plus will go to upgrading the nation's badly neglected infrastructure. And based on wish lists that are being drawn up by the states, it looks as if most of that money will be spent on traditional road and bridge projects.
Yet tech industry leaders warn that such an outcome could represent a huge lost opportunity. They say Congress should use the stimulus legislation to encourage infrastructure investments that include new "smart" technologies. These are sensors, software, and other tech products that make it possible to build things faster and better, and to operate them more efficiently and safely. After IBM (IBM) Chief Executive Samuel Palmisano and other tech executives met with President Obama on Jan. 28, Palmisano made a public appeal for upgrading infrastructure with digital technologies. "Smarter infrastructure is by far our best path to creating these new, globally competitive jobs and stimulating growth," he said.
Smart technology is a catch-all term that covers a variety of applications. Video cameras and sensors could be used to monitor traffic patterns and route drivers around bottlenecks. Computer chips in bridges could signal when repairs are needed. Wireless technologies could collect data on electricity usage throughout a city.
"Shovel-Ready" Projects Only, Please
Tech leaders hope to set off a debate in the halls of Congress and state capitals about the best way to spend the infrastructure billions. The government has said only that it wants "shovel-ready" projects that can get started immediately and potentially create hundreds of thousands of jobs. So far, many of the projects that have been put forth by the states are run-of-the-mill tasks such as repaving highways and shoring up bridges. Technology advocates were initially slow to engage in the debate, but they have now launched intense lobbying campaigns aimed at wedging more bits and bytes into the stimulus plan.
They've got some strong evidence on their side, too. The Intelligent Transportation Society of America says investment in automated traffic control systems and similar efforts produce more and better jobs than traditional construction projects. Citing data from a Jan. 19 U.S. Transportation Dept. report, the group says such systems employ people in multiple sectors of the economy, including high tech and environmental jobs in addition to traditional construction occupations. The report also says that, on average, about 50% of spending on such projects goes to direct labor, as compared with 20% in the case of new highway or bridge construction requiring a lot of expensive materials.
Some leading civil engineers come down on the side of the tech lobby. "This kind of smart infrastructure isn't going to put concrete into place, but it could help us put it there more efficiently and keep it there more effectively," says James Garrett Jr., head of Carnegie Mellon University's Civil and Environmental Engineering Dept.
Promising Cost-Benefit Ratios
Engineering experts say there are plenty of IT-oriented projects that are simple and affordable and can be implemented relatively quickly. The Florida Transportation Dept., for instance, spent a relatively modest $36 million to build a system to alert motorists to unusual traffic conditions along 50 miles of road in Broward County. It took just one year. A cost-benefit analysis of the project by researchers at Florida International University concluded that in 2006 the annualized cost of $9.9 million yielded a benefit of $142 million.
Government officials will have to struggle with the calculus of costs, benefits, and time lag as they set their stimulus spending priorities. Many state transportation departments are aware of the potential of intelligent transportation systems, and they're now developing the confidence and skills to undertake such projects. Says C. Michael Walton, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas: "This stuff is relatively cheap, and, if you save lives and avoid property damage, you get a significant cost-benefit ratio."