New England must get smarter about its infrastructure support

Across New England, there is an increasing recognition that improvements must be made to various elements of our infrastructure to boost the economic vitality of our cities and towns.

A recent report issued by the New England Council and Deloitte provides the framework for a new brand of "smart infrastructure" - one that is much more than the traditional highways, airports, railroads, telecommunications, and energy systems. Smart infrastructure also includes skilled human capital and access to financing. It is about connectivity of assets and capabilities in the most efficient way possible.

Investments in infrastructure can yield high returns in terms of economic growth, faster supply chains and reduced congestion in the movement of core economic assets. However, though it is often discussed, New England lacks a coherent strategy based on quantifiable, expected benefits and available financing that will improve the region's infrastructure.

Our report, "Smart Infrastructure in New England," suggests that in order to build a 21st century infrastructure that can enable economic growth and prosperity, public and private stakeholders must work together to take several key steps:

1. Exploit New England's structural advantages to achieve a responsive supply chain, operating economically with less congestion, by taking advantage of lower cost "home-shoring" sub-regions in support of dominant industries. There are several of these under-utilized areas of New England that reach into each of the six states and have access to labor, broadband, transportation, educational institutions, and mid-size communities. An updated, cost-effective, and diverse energy system is necessary to help ensure continued business investment.

2.Connect its regional networks and industry clusters to leverage their inherent economies with the appropriate infrastructure technology and management. New England must invest in the smooth movement of people and products into, out of, and around the region as it is an integral component of the supply chain of current businesses, and an enticement for potential business operations. This covers a broad swath of priority upgrades, including greater access to direct international flights to emerging markets as well as better traffic congestion management.

3. Develop workforce skills in a "learnings with earnings" collaboration, following a new apprenticeship model that can bring together the interests of business, education, and government in a way that matches education with the demands of the market. The challenge for the New England region is for each of these parties to understand that as a result of collaboration, individuals will be prepared for productive employment with existing firms, and new companies will be attracted to the region.

4. Finance strategic opportunities creatively, using a range of innovative options to match affordability with productivity and speed to market. In a tough economy, creative alternatives to scarce tax revenues are critical. Possibilities include an infrastructure bank, a variety of bond proposals, and usage fees such as congestion pricing. Public-Private Partnership (PPP) agreements can also provide alternative financing options, as well as direct assistance for infrastructure design, build, operation, and maintenance.

As one would expect, there are economic benefits of infrastructure investment in the New England region. In terms of GDP and jobs, research indicates that a $1 billion investment could create some 22,000 to 27,000 jobs and grow the region's GDP by $8.5 to $9.7 billion. An investment of $1 billion over five years beginning in 2013 could see approximately 135,000 new jobs through 2020.

A world-class infrastructure system for our region will contribute heavily to the overall economy of New England. We hope that the report the council and Deloitte have prepared serves as a starting point for a broader discussion among public and private sector stakeholders about smart infrastructure investments that can promote growth and ensure that New England remains a destination for business and innovation for generations to come.

James T. Brett is the president and CEO of The New England Council, a non-partisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England formed to promote economic growth.

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