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  The Making It! Business Blog
by Nelson Davis

Thursday, August 9, 2007
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THE INFRASTRUCTURE ROCKS

In the 1967 film “The Graduate” Mrs. Robinson had carnal interests in a young college graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), while Mr. Robinson offered the kid one word of advice for a prosperous future. He simply said, “plastics.”

 

Today my one word of advice to present and future business owners is “infrastructure.” Ours is in such awful condition that it presents a lifelong stream of opportunities. Even before the awful tragedy of the Minneapolis bridge collapse or hurricane Katrina, the subject was often on my mind simply as a major opportunity for small businesses. Months ago here in California, Governor Terminator (Schwarzenegger) had proposed large scale bond financing for extensive infrastructure work on roads and dams, which was unusual for a sitting politician. Usually they are very busy raising money for the next election or reacting only to clear and present crises. Somehow they are reluctant to do anything that doesn’t include ribbon cutting photo-ops. Talking about bridges, the air traffic control system and highways just isn’t a sexy topic at election time, nor do reporters flock to those news conferences at any time.

The subject of infrastructure is made up of many parts. For example, in Los Angeles I’ve noticed over the past 15 years that the automobile population has increased many percentage points while the number of gasoline stations has declined precipitously. Does that point toward a potential future crisis in a state with more cars than people? Duh! We’ve all heard the story about the painting routine for the Golden Gate Bridge. It says that whenever they finally finish giving it a new protective coat; the painters have to start all over again at the other end with the next round of painting. It is true that a great society can’t remain so without a strong infrastructure but sadly the work of building and maintaining it is about as exciting as watching that paint dry. It is hard to get anyone to care until it is broken.

 

When the underground steam pipe erupted in New York a few weeks ago, spewing steam and asbestos outside Grand Central Station, it became quickly obvious that neglect was part of the problem. If you’ve been traveling via commercial airlines this summer you may have firsthand knowledge of how late many flights are running and how creaky that system is becoming. The Department of Transportation says flight delays are the worst since they began keeping detailed records. Decades ago the Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini rose to power with a brand of state controlled capitalism that appealed to many people yearning for the order symbolized simply by having the trains run on time!    

Tom Brantley, national president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, AFL-CIO (PASS), warned members of the House Transportation and infrastructure Committee, Subcommittee on Aviation, that the FAA is neglecting the buildings and facilities that accommodate critical National Airspace System (NAS) equipment. Brantley expressed concern over technicians in the field reporting instances in which employees fell through rotting floors and fell off unstable stairways.  

Adding to the woes across the country, state budgets for infrastructure work have become the favorite piggy banks for budget busting politicians to raid for non-infrastructure expenses. In California, for example, it has been a long time (maybe even never) since gasoline taxes all went to roadway and traffic issues.

 I believe that where there is chaos there is opportunity. We are getting to the point where we can’t ignore the cracking and crumbling that, if left unchecked, could drag us into second or third world status. The best efforts of a range of businesses, from the very small to megaenterprises, will be needed. The biggest public works projects since President Eisenhower spearheaded the interstate highway system are just around the corner, and ambitious entrepreneurs need to get ready. 

And, let us not forget the “moral infrastructure,” which is the only compass that can keep a business or even a country on the right path but that is the subject for another day.  

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