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Infrastructure Is Hot Right Now—But for How Long?

Infrastructure gets a lot of attention during elections and disasters. Elections offer candidates a chance to trot out sexy-sounding terms like "smart grid" and "energy independence"; disasters show us just how short our current systems fall. This election, however, the candidates were strangely mute on the topic of our nation's deficient infrastructure. It took Hurricane Sandy hitting the most densely populated part of the country just a week prior to what has been one of the most divisive presidential elections in history for infrastructure to enjoy its day in the sun.

As the region recovers, there's the potential for a pivotal investment in infrastructure—one that could modernize an aging electrical grid, protect our coastal communities and minimize inefficiencies and disruptions to our energy, water and transportation systems.

As soon as an election is over and when relief crews have finished restoring power, everyone promptly forgets about infrastructure until the next go-round. No politician wants to advocate the diversion of trillions of dollars for the unsexy repair of existing problems, not to mention upgrades. Infrastructure is only conspicuous in its absence.

While Philadelphia was largely spared any major damage from last week's storm, that was due more to dumb meteorological luck than superior planning. Though settled miles from the coast, the entire Delaware Valley is still susceptible to storm surges, flooding and rising sea levels due to climate change. Footage from New Jersey and New York serves as a stark reminder of our own vulnerability. Additionally, as this summer's string of water main breaks made painfully clear, many elements of our civil infrastructure are at the end of their useful lifespan.

Philadelphia's transportation system is highly exposed to risk from flooding with subways already pumping water out of tunnels, highways next to rivers, a port and food distribution center in a floodplain, and an airport built on a filled-in marsh. Not to mention a persistent reliance on fossil fuels and perennial funding crises. While SEPTA is making positive headlines with its regenerative braking and new payment technologies, the "best large transit system in North America" still faces many of the same risks that could make the MFL look like this.

In a 2008 report prepared for the Delaware River Basin Commission, an urban design studio at Penn outlined regional risks of climate change from the Delaware Bay up to Port Jervis, NY, including in depth research on the Camden and Philadelphia waterfronts. Their recommendation to build a moveable storm surge barrier in a narrow part of the Delaware Bay to protect the entire urbanized region sounds presciently similar to calls from Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Cuomo last week in New York. Rounding out their suggestions were calls for growth management, (i.e., redirecting development out of flood-prone areas), improvement and potential relocation of vital transportation and industrial uses in flood zones, protection for wetlands and water supplies, and enhanced stormwater management.

Of more immediate concern and poignancy, given the timing, is a bill in City Council's Rules Committee that would require a 50-foot buffer on all officially recognized watercourses in Philadelphia. This buffer is intended to mitigate the effect development has on water quality, but a potential side benefit is that it creates a linear easement that could support waterfront trails on the Delaware while allowing the river to manage flooding through natural means. The bill is currently stalled in committee due to concerns from developers and property owners.

Despite the high-profile water main breaks this summer, the Philadelphia Water Department has done its part to ensure that the average Philadelphian knows what a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) is through the Office of Watersheds' nationally recognized plan, Green City, Clean Waters. Still, all the permeable asphalt and rain gardens in the world couldn't handle a storm of Sandy's magnitude. These improvements are mainly meant to capture the first inch of rainfall and mitigate impact from smaller storms.

Finally, electricity is what most people think of when they hear the word "infrastructure," and the grid certainly took the brunt of the damage last week with downed trees, flooding and power plant explosions rendering millions without service. Burying power lines underground in conduit similar to gas and water lines would protect the grid from falling limbs. But it comes with an exorbitant price tag—somewhere in the billions—and transfers the risk to flooding or earthquake. When we consider how volatile the energy supply market can be, how vulnerable the delivery method is, and how inefficient its transmission and distribution still is, centralized power production starts to look pretty shaky all around. Meanwhile, a robust renewable market starts to look merely like a beautiful dream—particularly when the presidential candidates argue over who supports coal more.

Here in Philly, we should be genuinely thankful that we dodged a bullet last week—but realistic about the fact that we won't be guaranteed to do so in the future. Here's hoping that no matter who wins the election, we'll be prepared. And it won't take another super storm to make infrastructure seem like a hot topic.