Through his Saturday radio address and Sunday appearance on Meet the Press, President-Elect Obama has started to present the details of his Economic Recovery plan that will provide for substantial reinvestment in America’s infrastructure.  In making these investments, Obama is seeking to create new jobs while restoring many of the structures that have enabled our country’s workforce and economy to become the envy of the world.

Focused attention and directed resources in our nation’s infrastructures are long overdue and investments such as these are ones that I am anxious to support.   While I still have a number of questions about the whole plan and what it entails (e.g., whose in charge of the plan; how do we pay this; what role other than job creation will the private sector play; etc.), I was impressed by a couple of key points that the President Elect made in sharing his plan.

In his Meet the Press interview, the President-Elect directly challenged the decision making processes of the past on investments such as these.

“We are not going to simply write a bunch of checks and let them be spent without some very clear criteria as to how this money is going to benefit the overall economy and put people back to work. We’re not going to be making decisions on projects simply based on politics and — and lobbying.”

In the same interview, he also offered:

“You know, the days of just pork coming out of Congress as a strategy, those days are over.”

I find Obama’s direction to be invigorating and very promising especially when it comes to our nation’s infrastructure.

Ever since the days of FDR’s New Deal and its Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Eisenhower Administration’s Interstate Highway System, our nation has capitalized its large infrastructure projects through several means including:

■ Direct Appropriations Packages;

■ The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and its subsequent successors;

■ Various Trust Funds (e.g., Highway Trust; Harbor Maintenance Trust; etc.);

■ Bonds (State & Local); and

Congressional Earmarks.

Politics plays a role in each of these decision vehicles but none more so than Congressional Earmarks.  The Alaska ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ is seen as one of the premier examples (and abuses) of an infrastructure funding strategy that has gone dramatically off track for generations.

Even the latest version of ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) which has been one of the primary funding mechanisms for infrastructure projects has had its project investment decisions seriously question.  When it passed in 2005, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), was vociferously criticized by various taxpayer groups for being short on substantive projects but big on pork-barrel spending with costs slated to be $286.4B

Today we are talking about spending a whole lot more than that.  While an official price tag to the new Administration’s Program probably won’t be available until after the Inauguration, Sunday’s Washington Post reported these costs to be anywhere from $400Billion to over $1Trillion.

Spending money has never been a problem for government.  Accounting for it; managing it; and getting a semblance of return have been.  As the new Administration proposes its Economic/Infrastructure Plan, I hope it will include the concepts of ‘Risk’ and ‘Resilience’ as part of its infrastructure investment decision making process.  Simply replacing a bridge, a road or any piece of infrastructure with an updated version is not a strategy that benefits the community in which it resides or serves.

When FDR and Eisenhower were making their infrastructure investment decisions several generations ago, they were spurred by national and regional needs as well as the country’s economic conditions to make these expenditures.  While Obama and his Administration are following a similar path given our current conditions, there is a tremendous opportunity for them to be smarter and even wiser than their predecessors.

Today our country has operating threats and conditions (increasing natural/terrorist hazards; excessive use and demand on infrastructures, etc.) that did not exist over a half-century ago.  With these factors in mind, the Obama Administration and Congress need to look at weighing in factors of risk and overall resilience (the ability of a structure or enterprise to withstand assault/infraction and continue to operate) when deciding which projects to fund and those it should not.

If we as a nation are serious about building a sustainable economy for our present needs and future demands, risk and resilience have to come into play in the investment decision process.   Including these factors into the decision making process does not mean that we will put ‘guns, gates and guards’ around every structure that we fund and ultimately build.  Rather it means that when we build these structures, we do so according to informed decisions as well as standards and ‘best practices’ that allow these resources to endure not just the daily use for which they are intended but the assaults and pressures that come from the threats and conditions of today and tomorrow.

Timothy McVeigh; Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav; the Northeast Power Grid; and more have all taught us about our vulnerabilities and how fragile and interdependent we are as a nation and the structures that make our lives and economy go.

Unfortunately the threats of increasing energy/power demands; IEDs; more powerful weather systems; suicide bombings and so forth are all conditions approaching the life of our nation.  The recently issued report by The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism echo these emerging conditions and its sobering conclusions need to be a part of the investment decisions we are about to make.  By ignoring this report and the other harbingers like it, we will not get the return on the investments we are about to make on the days we as a nation will depend upon them most.

I concur with the President-Elect’s admonition that politics as usual will not work.  Our decision making for infrastructure reinvestment needs to dramatically improve and the Obama Administration and Congress have a true ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to make that change in the coming weeks.

Applying the concepts of risk and resilience for the projects that are already ‘shovel ready’ and about to be funded, as well as those that will be funded after it is the change we all need to see happen.  If they are successful in changing that decision paradigm, it will be the ‘real change’ that we can all believe possible and I hope the President-Elect and the new Congress make us all ‘believers.’

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More