Eno Attends White House Summit on Accelerating Infrastructure
What matters as much as $1 trillion in infrastructure spending? Making sure that money gets spent on time, on task, and on budget. Eno’s longstanding effort to reduce transit project costs and timelines matched well with Thursday’s White House Summit on Accelerating Infrastructure and the release of their Action Plan to Accelerate Infrastructure.
I attended the event, which featured a series of speeches and panel discussions. Senior administration officials, governors, mayors, transportation department directors, and other stakeholders offered their insights on how governments and the private sector can work together to speedily and responsibly spend the funds in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (IIJA).
While myriad topics were discussed, three aligned closely with Eno’s recent recommendations:
Prioritizing Workforce Development
While private consultants and contractors will be the primary designers and builders of new bridges, roads, and rail lines, it is public sector employees who should and will lead project development and oversight. Eno has consistently found that most places that successfully build infrastructure at low cost employ talented and well-equipped public sector engineers and project managers. The United States needs better ways to attract, retain, and train these staff, particularly given the historic infusion of funding.
In his opening remarks, White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu mentioned the need to have qualified and trained public sector workers who can lead the deployment of new projects. Specifically, he called out Eno’s forthcoming study entitled, Developing the Capital Project Workforce of the Future: Improving Recruitment, Training, and Retaining of the Managers of Major Transit Projects. This work, to be released in 2023, will help inform this discussion.
Standardization of designs
Many of the panelists mentioned the desire for projects to have a customized, unique design. Given how infrequent these projects take place, there is a natural and understandable tendency to tailor designs and materials to a locally preferred aesthetic. In other cases, agencies have highly specific and unique standards for equipment and systems which are not visible to the public. Eno has found by copying best practices from international and domestic cases, projects can achieve better economies of scale.
At the event, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock put it bluntly, saying that projects need the “rip off and duplicate” form of R&D, and resist the temptation to design projects from scratch.
Get local elected officials invested in successful project delivery
Panelists confirmed that projects often defer too much to community input and place high value on the path of least resistance. While it is important to listen and absorb input from the community, saying “yes” to everything results in scope creep, change orders, and thus escalating costs. Public agencies and the officials on their boards are intended to represent the public, and agency staff need to be more empowered to make tough decisions on project scope and requests during planning and construction.
Importantly, speakers also said that it is not the sole responsibility of bureaucrats to deliver on time and on budget. Local elected officials must take help too, providing cover and making local agencies and stakeholders work cooperatively. John Porcari suggested creating a culture where “bad news travels quickly uphill,” and issues can be resolved fast.
While many remarks were thanking Congress and the Administration for successfully securing the new resources, in her closing remarks Vice President Harris warned not “to pat ourselves on the back yet” and ensure that what was promised is delivered responsibly.