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A very interesting read from people who are actually qualified to comment on this kind. I’ll spare you my rhetoric and leave it to the expert. While the article is apolitical, you can see that the current political solution is failing to meet many of the proposed criteria.

Obama’s $700 Billion Infrastructure Plan:


Over the weekend, Barack Obama added some more detail and resolve to the plan politicians have been trumpeting for a major spending initiative come January 20, 2009, while the new president’s handprint is still warm on the cover of the inaugural Bible. The number could be $500 billion or even $700 billion, which for once is actually more than the experts have called for. (A much-cited study by the American Society of Civil Engineers said that America’s spending shortfall was about $600 billion over five years.)

Popular Mechanics has no position on whether or not the infusion of cash will quickly create good jobs, resurrect the middle class, fuel an economic recovery or simply create more work sites for our readers and ourselves to gawk at. (Wow, cool crane.) But we have definite opinions on how the money can be put to good use. No one, not even Congress, can spend $600 billion (to choose a middle number) at once. The money will be doled out a mere half-billion or billion dollars at a time, and that means that thousands of potential projects will be considered and lobbied for. Here are four general principles that the public and our leaders should keep in mind as we make go, no-go decisions.

Rule 1: Reward Competence

Seems obvious, yes? But since political leaders are talking about employing people and stimulating the economy, it’s easy to see how cost overruns and blown schedules might be tolerated as long as paychecks are going out and invoices from Joe’s Cement and Job Creation are coming in. We’ve got to resist this tendency. The Big Dig, the ambitious program to reroute Boston roads to reduce traffic snarls, was a good idea when it was approved back in the 1980s, but after work got started, there were too many contractors and subcontractors with flabby schedules and little accountability. It was supposed to cost $2.6 billion, but the spending eventually rocketed past $14 billion. Once the main tunnel opened, years behind schedule, hundreds of leaks were discovered, and then a section of ceiling collapsed, killing a 38-year-old mother of three. There’s an engineering adage that says you can have something built well, fast or cheap: Pick any two. But let’s not read the wrong message in that. Beware projects that are slow and expensive; it’s often a sign that quality is suffering, too.


Rule 2: Fund Goals, Not Technologies

SunPower Corporation’s best “back-contact” photovoltaic cell can produce energy (in the form of electricity) equal to 23.4 percent of the energy (in the form of radiation from the sun) that hits its surface. That’s 50 percent better than a conventional solar cell, and a good argument for why the incoming administration should throw its weight behind back-contact PV cells. But wait. “Concentrating” PV panels could hit efficiencies of 45 percent in the next couple of years, demonstrating why this technology should be the new standard, instead. Think we’re done? Nope. Stirling Energy Systems uses a thermal solar system to achieve efficiencies of 31.25 percent on a commercial scale, at a low cost and with no need to source silicon, an increasingly sought-after and expensive material. Solar thermal is arguably the most practical solar technology right now—a real competitor to coal on cost—and will be relatively easy to scale up. Maybe this is the best candidate for that governmental stamp of approval.

See the problem? Corn-based ethanol looked like a good idea, too, until someone did the science and the arithmetic and realized that it may be no better for the environment than plain old diesel fuel. That didn’t stop Congress from slipping corn ethanol provisions into the 2007 energy law (pdf), a piece of legislation yea-voting Senators brought up while campaigning for the Iowa caucuses a few weeks later. Leaving cynicism aside, we can sympathize with the lawyerly minds on Capitol Hill. Iowa’s icy rural roads and the decision of whether to wear the John Deere or International Harvester baseball cap were small hurdles compared to the blizzard of technical jargon, engineering diagrams and physics lessons the senators no doubt tried to absorb while crafting the legislation in fall 2007.


Rule 3: Invest in Information

It’s hard to keep up with the numbers, but there are about 150,000 structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges in the United States—less than there used to be, by the way. We are making some progress. So which of these bridges should be at the top of this fix-or-replace list in the new era of ample funding? Hmm, no one really knows.


Rule 4: Address the Biggest Problem

And the winner is…water. We can pour the concrete to fix every highway, and some decade soon we may even figure out fusion and stop worrying about energy, but the amount of freshwater in the world is fixed, and it’s not enough. Soggy Atlanta had severe water shortages last year.


Of course, it would also be possible to spend vast sums to build immense waterworks projects and carry supplies across hundreds or even thousands of miles. Such colossi would create jobs and stimulate at least some corners of the economy. On the other hand, they wouldn’t solve the long-term water problem. At least in this case, money isn’t enough.

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One Response to “Popular Mechanics Magazine puts Obama’s infrastructure promises to the test”

  1. john smith says:

    i guess criticism is the price one has to pay when left to clean up the mess of his predecessor.

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