Boise State on Business

Michail Fragkias: Idaho faces infrastructure challenges

MICHAIL FRAGKIAS, director, Center for Business Research and Economic Development, Boise State University College of Business and EconomicsSeptember 24, 2013 

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Michail Fragkias

Idaho relies heavily on infrastructure, like water and sewage systems, roads, bridges, dams and power plants. Much of that infrastructure is aging, requiring repairs or replacement. Our infrastructure recently received a grade of C- in the 2013 "Report Card for America's Infrastructure." Why? Approximately 20 percent of bridges in Idaho are considered either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, and 45 percent of all roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

Recently, Idaho policymakers and stakeholders had an opportunity to discuss the challenges for funding Idaho's infrastructure needs at an event organized by the Urban Land Institute. Through a lively discussion, the panelists agreed that Idaho's infrastructure needs are vital for the economic health of the region and that investment in infrastructure for maintenance and upgrades is a high priority. While the funding challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable.

Leveraging the required funds for an A grade requires us to first understand the costs of inaction and establish a clear vision for Idaho's economic future. The former involves new large-scale regional economic development studies; the latter, a widely participatory planning and policy process. Two factors increase the complexity of the task at hand: the interdependence of our infrastructure system and climate shifts that lead to more frequent extreme weather phenomena.

Highly interconnected infrastructure systems make us vulnerable to disruptions that occur from lack of maintenance. Failures in the electrical grid can lead to cascading effects for water treatment, transportation services, and public health. Emphasizing investment on only a few priority infrastructure projects can be dangerous practice: The stakes become high in an era of climate change risks such as heat waves, wildfires and extreme weather events expected to stress and periodically disrupt services.

The water cycle provides a prime example of how Idaho's interlinked infrastructure systems are at risk from rising temperatures and precipitation changes. Early melting of the snowpack in the mountains of Idaho can lead to severe flooding and more drought risk for the hot months. Hydropower capacity is also reduced at a time where demand is high, increasing our dependence on the already vulnerable electrical grid that connects us to other states. Changes to seasonal stream flow could impact reservoirs.

Our transportation infrastructure, responsible for linking rural and urban areas and moving goods effectively, reveals more interconnection. Projected climatic changes have implications for operations, function, capacity and reliability. Increases in very hot days could cause limited rail operating speeds and traffic delays due to wildfire; they also may cause railroad track deformities and reduced pavement performance.

Increases in intense precipitation, combined with effects of past wildfires, may bring about increased delays and closures due to flooding; they also could lead to increased landslide risk and roadway washouts.

Moving forward, the debate on infrastructure investment in Idaho will require resources for a comprehensive understanding of the range of effects of a changing climate on the interdependent infrastructure systems, identifying barriers to possible solutions and our adaptation options.

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