Five Pillars of Infrastructure Reform

Five Pillars of Infrastructure Reform

Addressing the complex and dynamic challenge of infrastructure resilience and modernization requires a concerted effort from all levels of government, the private sector, and civil society.

Once again, a tragedy serves as a flashing red light for the citizens of this country. The catastrophic collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the early morning hours on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, highlights the glaring fact that the United States faces a daunting challenge in addressing the vulnerabilities of its critical infrastructure despite significant investments and efforts.

Decades of underinvestment, fragmented approaches, and short-term thinking have left much of the nation’s infrastructure aged, decaying, and ill-prepared to withstand the challenges of the twenty-first century. Natural disasters, man-made accidents, and cyber threats pose significant risks to essential infrastructure systems, disrupting services, endangering lives, and undermining the economy.

At the heart of the problem lies a fragmented approach to infrastructure investment and management. With responsibility divided among various federal, state, and local agencies, coordination challenges abound, leading to inefficiencies, delays, and missed opportunities. Moreover, short-term political cycles are often not informed by risk analysis, and projects are prioritized for immediate talking points over long-term resilience and modernization efforts, perpetuating this cycle of neglect and decay.

The U.S. government needs comprehensive transformation to enable a strategic and forward-thinking paradigm for infrastructure development and investment practices that address these challenges and chart an intelligent path forward. Several key pillars should guide this approach:

First and foremost, the government must develop a comprehensive infrastructure plan that identifies current needs, assesses future risks, and prioritizes investments in resilience and modernization. This plan should encompass all infrastructure sectors, from transportation and energy to water and telecommunications, while incorporating input from stakeholders across the public and private sectors.

Second, the regulatory process for infrastructure projects must be streamlined to optimize positive outcomes, reducing delays and costs. This could involve reforms to environmental review processes, permit streamlining, and greater coordination among regulatory agencies at all levels of government. The government can accelerate infrastructure projects by simplifying and expediting the regulatory process while ensuring appropriate environmental protections and community engagement.

Third, sufficient funding is essential to support infrastructure development and maintenance. While trillions of dollars have been allocated for infrastructure over the years, additional resources may be needed to address maintenance backlogs and upgrade outdated systems. Innovative financing mechanisms such as public-private partnerships, infrastructure banks, and user fees can help supplement traditional funding sources and attract private investment.

Fourth, resilience planning must be integrated into all infrastructure projects to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters, cyber-attacks, and other threats and hazards. This includes building redundancy, incorporating green infrastructure, and investing in cybersecurity measures to safeguard critical systems from evolving risks.

Fifth, the government should embrace emerging technologies to modernize infrastructure systems and improve efficiency, reliability, and sustainability. By leveraging technologies such as artificial intelligence, IoT, and renewable energy, the government can unlock new opportunities for innovation and transformation across infrastructure sectors while creating jobs and opportunities for economic growth.

Finally, collaboration between the public and private sectors is essential to mobilizing expertise, resources, and innovation in infrastructure development. Public-private partnerships, knowledge-sharing initiatives, and research collaborations can facilitate the exchange of ideas and best practices, driving progress toward a more resilient and modern infrastructure system.

In addition to the comprehensive approach outlined above, establishing a Critical Infrastructure Risk Register or National Risk Register is imperative to effectively identify, prioritize, and mitigate the nation’s infrastructure risks. Coordinated by the Federal Interagency and led by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), with oversight from the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget, this register would serve as a central repository of information on infrastructure vulnerabilities, threats, and potential impacts.

The Risk Register should include a detailed assessment of the critical infrastructure sectors, including transportation, energy, water, telecommunications, and others, identifying critical assets, dependencies, and interdependencies. It should also catalog known threats, including natural disasters, cyber-attacks, terrorism, and other hazards, along with their likelihood and potential consequences. Furthermore, the register should outline risk mitigation strategies, including resilience measures, technological innovations, and policy interventions, to reduce vulnerabilities and enhance the overall resilience of critical infrastructure systems.

By maintaining a comprehensive Risk Register, government agencies and stakeholders can systematically prioritize infrastructure projects based on their potential to mitigate identified risks and enhance overall resilience. Additionally, the register can serve as a valuable tool for measuring the success of infrastructure investments over time, tracking improvements in resilience, and identifying areas where further action may be needed. Ultimately, the Risk Register would enable informed decision-making, resource allocation, and coordination efforts to safeguard America’s critical infrastructure and ensure its ability to withstand emerging threats in the years ahead.

Addressing the complex and dynamic challenge of infrastructure resilience and modernization requires a concerted effort from all levels of government, the private sector, and civil society. Failure to adopt a comprehensive approach guided by the pillars outlined above will cause the U.S. government to continue to falter in its efforts to mitigate risks, enhance resilience, and ensure that America’s critical infrastructure remains safe, reliable, and capable of meeting the needs of future generations.

Brian J. Cavanaugh served on the National Security Council from 2018–2021 as the Senior Director for Resilience under both Presidents Trump and Biden. He is currently the Senior Vice President of Homeland Security and Technology at American Global Strategies, a firm founded by former National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and NSC Chief of Staff Alex Gray.