January 21st, 2009
12:14 PM ET

A smarter economic stimulus package

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Martin Wachs
RAND Corporation

President Obama's infrastructure plan doesn't yet carry a price tag. We only know that it will be big. It aims to create many jobs and, more importantly, focus resources where they are long overdue - on fixing roads, bridges, water systems and power grids which have been falling into disrepair for decades.

The trick is how it will be done. It will not be enough to simply rebuild and repair critical infrastructure systems. We need to reinvent the systems themselves – with a healthy dose of 21st century technology.

To take one example: Human inspectors holding clipboards to monitor the condition and maintenance needs of bridges, tunnels, and pipelines should become a thing of the past. We should instead be embedding small but powerful and inexpensive electronic sensors to issue automatic warnings when repairs are needed. These devices are more accurate – human inspectors who eyeball complex facilities tend to see only the surface signs of wear and tear – and far cheaper.

The collapse of the highway bridge in Minnesota last year might not have been avoided by such sensors; it appears to have resulted from a basic design flaw. But advanced warning of the growing strain on the structure, made possible by such sensors, might have allowed the bridge to be cleared of motorists before it fell.

Another way to use sensors: Instead of hunting for parking in a crowded shopping center by driving up and down aisle after aisle – burning gasoline, breathing fumes, creating greenhouse gases – we could rely on computers and cell phones to tell us where spaces are. We wouldn't have to build as many spaces to begin with, since each would be used far more efficiently.

Technology could also make the functioning of infrastructure systems more efficient. Today, for example, we rely on the rather clumsy and indirect method of pricing road use by taxing gasoline by the gallon. What if we shifted to electronic meters in vehicles to charge different rates for using different types of roads at different times of day? We could charge more for vehicles, like heavy trucks, that do more damage to roads than cars.

Likewise, consider water. In many places today it is still not metered, but paid for from taxes on property that don't relate to how much is consumed. We waste water because there is no cost associated with doing so.

Existing technology can bill us more fairly for water and power, mainly by varying the charges with the costs of providing the services. Similar technology can meter our use of electricity to help us use it wisely and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

America's infrastructure desperately needs fixing and expansion to accommodate growth. But as we enjoy new gee-whiz computer applications at work and play, we should not overlook a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity to employ the same sort of technology to upgrade and improve the infrastructure that is our collective wealth and legacy to future generations.

It would be a shame to spend hundreds of billions on infrastructure without incorporating technology at least as modern as we expect to find in an iPod or video game.

Editor's Note: Martin Wachs is Director of transportation, space, and technology at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

Filed under: Economy • Finance • President Barack Obama
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. Mike in NYC

    Remember that skilled, competent workers will be needed for many of the tasks being discussed. Networks don't install themselves, and bridges don't repair themselves. Frankly, I don't think a good chunk of the US workforce is up to it.

    January 21, 2009 at 2:46 pm |
  2. Craig Lee

    I was born and reared in Motown. My DNA is built upon the automobile. GM (hell, the big 3) is evil incarnate, and, ALL stock holders have benefited from their deeds, both good and BAD. Now ALL must pay for GM's actions.
    GM killed the EV1, and the public didn't do a damn thing to stop them. So you get what you pay for. President Obama MUST put extremely tough stipulations on the up coming stimulus payout, which they ARE going to make. I hope during your discussions, someone does bring up the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car".

    January 21, 2009 at 2:25 pm |
  3. KAREN

    Im so glad we have a president now who trueley cares about the people ,im behind him 100 percent,as im sure everybudy is im so glad to see Bush and his staff gohn.

    January 21, 2009 at 1:34 pm |
  4. Joanne, Solvay, NY

    I'm from the USA...and please, don't add more tax to roads and gasoline....just a bad idea.

    January 21, 2009 at 12:31 pm |
  5. Pândego Endiabrado

    Obama to remember that people are more important than the great works ...

    I'm from Brazil.

    January 21, 2009 at 12:17 pm |