Infrastructure resilience is one of the greatest challenges facing our country today. In the post-disaster world of events like Hurricane Katrina and the near meltdown of the Fukishima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan following last year’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, public and private sector leaders have learned the potential for a single event to disable the foundations of a functioning society. The traditional approach to addressing resilience involves integrating the efforts of federal, local and state governments; as well as private sector owners of much of the nation’s infrastructure.
The US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Infrastructure Protection (IP) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) lead the charge, coordinating efforts to improve the design standards, disaster planning, and overall coordination of infrastructure facilities. Much of their work involves engaging state and local governments where facilities are based, and the owners and operators of those facilities – often from the private sector - to arrange joint efforts for preparing roadways, water systems, and energy facilities for the worst that Mother Nature and others can bear. With more than 20,000 local and municipal governments within the U.S. federal system, aligning federal, state, local, and private interests is anything but easy.
Amidst the existing challenges of engaging public and private stakeholders in infrastructure resilience, many state and local governments are re-shaping the boundaries between public and private sectors by developing innovative public-private partnerships (PPP) to develop, finance and operate critical infrastructure systems. These innovative, infrastructure-delivery partnerships merge public and private interests and responsibilities for operating major roadways, bridges and other vital transportation arteries. The integrated responsibilities in PPPs for infrastructure re-define public and private roles in major systems by integrating public managers into private sector approaches to building and financing infrastructure. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) also reports more innovative PPPs for infrastructure delivery since 2005 than any other time in our nation’s history. The future is not all bleak, however.
A recent report on "Public-Private Partnerships and Infrastructure Resilience" by the National Chamber Foundation, the think tank of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, suggests that as more governments turn to private financing and related partnerships for developing facilities, many of the planning processes required of co-developing infrastructure with a private entity challenge governments to address a number of issues related to resilience. Specifically, PPPs for infrastructure force public managers to consider risk assessments, design standards in respect to long-term operating needs, and coordination across public and private sectors in ways they had not done before. The very involvement of market mechanisms in the infrastructure delivery process introduced through infrastructure PPPs, challenges the public sector to consider long-term planning, including resilience, in new ways.
Coordinating the many public and private sector interests involved in infrastructure resilience will always remain a challenge in the U.S. As more and more states find themselves strapped for cash and begin to look at innovative approaches for engaging the private sector in what they deliver, it’s long past time that we find out how infrastructure PPPs affect our approaches to building durable and sustainable facilities that we all depend upon.