America’s Infrastructure: Do you really know what’s going on?

If any of us have been keeping up with the media, we believe to be experts on all the natural and infrastructure disasters that have happened and continue to occur. What we remain clueless to is the sensationalism and finger pointing game that the newscasts and newspaper articles involved. To name just a few examples, the recent harsh winters and the multiple issues with potholes and water main breaks, the New York gas line failures that resulted in various deaths and injuries, and Oso, Washington mudslides, which according to news media, should have been prevented by the government. The reality is that our nation has adopted the bad habit of acting after it is too late. Most of us have first hand experiences with this custom through natural disasters like the recent California earthquakes, yearly fires, and mudslides. Similarly, the Washington landslides have now brought attention to the lack of a national landslide warning program. Each year after these events occur, the need for preventive services and disaster coordination arises. Then, almost like clockwork, for a couple of weeks we all see the ads, commercials, and hear the radio announcements that aim to raise awareness about the dangers of these disasters. We also see all of the social media and public services scramble to provide us with emergency plans and contacts that can be of help to the people affected and to be noted for future references. It is clear to me that a public information campaign is the answer to our lack of knowledge, because these use mass media to shape public attitudes, values, and behaviors toward a chosen outcome. Our chosen outcome should be to come together and acknowledge our shared responsibility in improving our infrastructure and thus our way of life. Organizations, like the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), have already implemented measures to raise awareness on our crumbling infrastructure and it is time for our public servants to take these to the next level.

The disasters caused by our infrastructure are numerous and constantly recurring due to the old age of our facilities. Unfortunately, even though they are increasingly comparable to natural disasters there is little urgency to mobilize society and legislators and promote societal involvement in fixing these problems. Thankfully, the ASCE noticed, and has been producing report cards for America’s infrastructure every four years since 1998. Andrew W. Herrmann, former ASCE president explained these analyses are done because of the ASCE “obligation to make a report on the state of infrastructure in the U.S. to show that we are not making the necessary investments to improve it and not even making some of the investments that we need to maintain what we have.” However, these report cards have not received the attention required to make impactful changes until the release of the most recent 2013 ASCE Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. I believe this was largely in part due to a discovery Herrmann had during his ASCE presidency in 2011 which allowed the ASCE to change their strategy. In his President’s Perspective post titled Are We Really the Rodney ‘No Respect’ Dangerfield of Professions? He explains that “Engineers, though labeled trustworthy by the public, get virtually no respect or recognition for what we do [… and] this may be why infrastructure is taken for granted. We don’t publicize it.”  Although the current rating has already generated over 16,000 media responses only a year after its release, these responses have focused on everything but how to continue improving the status of our infrastructure. Comedy Central took the opportunity to emphasize our minimal improvement from the 2009 report as a “tiny triumph,” and MSNBC, chose to report on the low grades, politicians’ broken promises, and hopeless amount of repairs and investment necessary to bring the infrastructure back to an acceptable standard.

With social media progressively at the forefront of sharing and digesting information, we see people, who have formulated erroneous beliefs about the condition of infrastructure, produce accounts stating that the crisis of America’s infrastructure is exaggerated, that roads are still pretty good, and it is really “not as bad as it sounds.” To challenge these erroneous beliefs ASCE has begun a group known as Save America’s Infrastructure, but I have realized that it is necessary to further the discussion from the engineering community to the general public if we hope to change any attitudes. The media, with proper direction, can be a tool to inform and empower and California has proven this time and time again through multiple campaigns aimed to educate the public. One of the best examples is the Flex Your Power campaign implemented for the 2001 energy crisis. It was a coordinated effort from the California State and Consumer Services Agency that urged “everyone from CEO’s to schoolchildren to conserve.” A case study of this campaign reveals that it was so well executed due to all of the support, which allowed “thousands of consumers [to receive] energy information on bags from grocery and convenience stores [and] teachers in grades 4-6 [to receive] energy conservation lesson materials.” Max Rodriguez, a supervising engineer with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, Flood Maintenance Division, expressed his support for these campaigns during our interview stating, “I have had the opportunity to work with various campaigns, and they really do make a difference. People don’t realize how much power they have.” Public information campaigns continue to be used widely across the different levels of government to promote awareness and increase results. After the success with Flex Your Power California has initiated Save Our Water, which calls Californian’s attention to conservation in our times of drought. Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States, also uses a campaign (Lets Move!) in her fight against childhood obesity. With so many other important issues already implementing public information campaigns, the need for one regarding infrastructure is apparent and urgent.

It is a well known fact that large and powerful campaigns take large amounts of money and time to initiate and may have delayed gratification, but it should be obvious to all of us that for our infrastructure that the positives outweigh the negatives. We have had the opportunity to see their effectiveness, so many will wonder what would a campaign for our infrastructure look like. First we must set our audience, which includes raising the awareness of every American citizen, because we are the ones directly affected by the condition of our infrastructure. Having this audience can be difficult due to the regional differences in culture and needs, for example, while ports may be one of the major factors for coastal states, other states do not even have access to the ocean and would benefit more from rain and transit investments. Therefore it is important to have regionalized information about what would benefit the state population the most. Now, I am sure many will think, these all sound very similar to the report card that ASCE has been releasing and it is an approach that has not been working. However, before we completely dismiss the idea allow me to point out the difference that we will not be focusing on how much of our infrastructure is deficient, but on how to empower the public to request and vote for feasible plans to mend it. California has already set in motion plans to continue updating transportation through 2019, and if the rest of the states followed suit half of the work in implementing the infrastructure campaign would be accomplished. The state of our infrastructure is not something that can be fixed overnight, and it is not something the government can fix on their own. Nevertheless, until they begin taking action to educate the people so that we may all work together, we will not move forward.

The reality lies in the fact that our nation’s infrastructure is indeed crumbling and we as a society have not done enough to redeem it. However as long as the general public remains uninformed, we will lack the support of the public causing the laws and regulations that need to be changed to promote investment. This means that rehabilitation of our current infrastructure will continue to be postponed. We all know that media has great potential when it is used correctly to promote ideas that are for the greater benefit. We see it every day with the reminders to Flex Our Power, to open our minds to new forms of alternative energy, and to support the preservation of our environment. Very successful campaigns to increase recycling and reduce waste, more actively prepare for natural disasters, and continue to invest to contribute to economic growth have been catalyzed by media. Therefore it is now the time to take the sensational disasters and the many exposes on how they could have been prevented, and take it one step further to allow people to find out about current policies. We need people to understand exactly how their decisions affect each and every one of their accesses to public utilities and assets in order to save America’s infrastructure. 

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