A new report, Infrastructure Crisis, Sustainable Solutions: Rethinking Our Infrastructure Investment Strategies, recently released by the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at The Evergreen State College, paints the picture of innovative, integrated infrastructure strategies emerging to reshape the energy, transportation, wastewater, stormwater, water supply, and waste sectors.

By: Rhys Roth, Director, Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at The Evergreen State College and Elizabeth Kelly, P.E., Vice President and Senior Consultant, CH2M HILL (previously with Seattle Public Utilities)

In the next few years, the United States is going to have to spend many billions of dollars on infrastructure simply to keep our society and economy functioning. This is the reality; however, the big question that remains is, how can we get smarter about the ways we’ll invest that money? If we choose to invest in solutions that are affordable, resilient, environmentally sound, and integrated, we can make a positive difference in our communities and benefit local economies.

The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure (CSI) recently released a new report, Infrastructure Crisis, Sustainable Solutions, which includes interviews from 70 Pacific Northwest infrastructure innovators and thought leaders representing the public, private, academic, and non-profit sectors with expertise spanning energy, transportation, water, waste, and infrastructure finance. According to findings in the report, it’s clear that utility managers, transportation planners, scientists, and politicians all agree that American infrastructure is aging. Yet, regions, like the Pacific Northwest, are facing a growing public infrastructure crisis—facilities are deteriorating and maintenance costs are rising, but resources to fund these capital improvement projects are shrinking.

Despite these challenges, the Pacific Northwest is aiming to become a national leader by identifying more cost-efficient, sustainable, and resilient infrastructure systems. If public and private sectors work together, a step change in how we manage, operate, and rehabilitate our infrastructure, and even in how we define our role as infrastructure managers, is likely to occur. Emerging technologies will also play a major role, as they present opportunities for lower impact and lower cost capital and operations and maintenance (O&M) solutions.  However, it’s not just about what gets built, it’s also about updating policies, optimizing O&M, and building strong collaborative relationships with the communities served by the infrastructure.

Today’s infrastructure needs require a new and different approach to engineering sustainable solutions. In years past, engineers were recognized for building the biggest dam, the biggest bridge, or the biggest tunnel. We need to turn that thinking around and recognize solutions that address multiple community needs while collaborating across traditional boundaries, making use of emerging technologies, and optimizing systems.

Hopefully the new report, which has broad application to water, power, transportation, and urban planning, will be beneficial to public, nonprofit, academic, and industry leaders, as they help Northwest communities transform how they think about, plan for, and invest in their infrastructure assets. Its ultimate measure of success will involve an evolution toward healthy, prosperous, beautiful, and cohesive communities—ones driven by smarter investments.

Going forward, a major focus for the Center will be on communicating this urgency, the opportunities to realize much greater financial, social, and environmental return from our infrastructure investments, and the strategies that can get us there. In the coming months, the Center will convene advisors and allies to consider new programs, projects, and partnerships as a way to build capacity in the region to innovate and lead. Among the roles the Center will consider are:

  • developing and sharing practical tools for infrastructure decision makers
  • convening leaders and innovators to collaborate and address key challenges
  • galvanizing support for a compelling long-range vision for regional leadership, and for rethinking the infrastructure finance and policy in the region
  • creating new professional development training programs and strategic consulting services

Rhys Roth is the Director for the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Rhys co-founded Climate Solutions in 1998, and helped it grow into the Northwest’s most important and influential non-profit group addressing climate change.  In 2013, Rhys was honored as a “Sustainability Trailblazer” by the Sustainable Path Foundation. He returned to his alma mater, The Evergreen State College, more than 20 years after graduating with a Masters of Environmental Studies, to lead the College’s new Center for Sustainable Infrastructure to help bring innovation, new tools, and sustainability excellence to infrastructure planning and investment in the Pacific Northwest, in late 2013. He authored the Center’s inaugural report, “Infrastructure Crisis, Sustainable Solutions,” in November 2014. 

Liz Kelly has more than 20 years of experience in water, wastewater, drainage, and solid waste utilities work, civil engineering, asset management, project management, and strategic planning. She is currently a Senior Consultant for CH2M HILL’s Strategic Consulting Solutions Team. During her career, she has managed a large number of employees and projects, ranging up to several hundred million dollar, complex design-build-operate projects. Ms. Kelly was most recently the Director of Project Management and Engineering Division for Seattle Public Utilities, where she oversaw a portfolio of projects totaling close to $735 million.