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....
The remainder of this op-ed can be found at http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2009/01/21/a-smarter-economic-stimulus-package/.
Martin Wachs is director of the Transportation, Space, and Technology Program at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.
This commentary originally appeared on CNN on January 21, 2009. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.