One month ago, a 40-year-old, 30-inch sewer pipe ruptured in Tarrytown, N.Y. While workers hurried to fix the pipe, millions of gallons of chlorinated sewage seeped into the Hudson River. Swimmers were told to stay out of the water, CBS News reported.
In Manhattan Wednesday, Cornell will launch a program designed to address the deterioration of sewage systems, roads and public transportation across America, according to Prof. Rick Geddes, policy analysis and management, the program’s director. The Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy will centralize teaching and research on infrastructure in order to develop public policies to improve American infrastructure.
In addition to working with undergraduates majoring in transportation engineering and urban planning, the program will also offer a concentration for graduate students pursuing their masters of public affairs, Geddes said.
Geddes said that he envisions the program as allowing the University to more efficiently conduct research on pressing infrastructure problems.
“Cornell is a complicated place with a lot of things going on,” he said. “As it turns out, there are a lot of people [across the colleges] working on infrastructure issues at Cornell. What CPIP does is help all these people to collaborate on research and build on each other’s research.”
The program, however, will also facilitate the involvement of undergraduates in research, according to John Foote ’74, a visiting lecturer in the Department of City and Regional Planning and an affiliate of CPIP.
“Perhaps the most important reason for the program from my point of view is that it gives students who are interested in this area of infrastructure a place to go to find out who is doing what,” Foote said.
Foote also said that the program is grounded in Cornell’s land grant mission.
“As a land grant institution, we have an obligation to deal with tough public policy issues,” Foote said. “And that’s what CPIP is designed to do — it’s designed to give Cornell, for the first time, a sharp focus on this critically important national and global issue.”
But there is also a more ominous impetus for the program.
“I believe that we will be facing a huge infrastructure problem in the coming years,” Geddes said. “It’s the result of a confluence of major infrastructure challenges.”
One issue that was a driving factor in CPIP’s creation, Foote said, is the lack of public funding for infrastructure in the country.
“To have a strong, safe, modern economy you need a robust infrastructure to go along with it,” Foote said. “Over the past years, we have underfunded our infrastructure. We have deferred maintenance and not grown our infrastructure to serve an increasing population with different needs than we had 30 years ago.”
In fact, Geddes said, he began thinking about developing a Cornell program focusing on infrastructure policy about a year ago — after he gave testimony at a U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure to assess the Federal Railroad Administration’s High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program.
“My time with the committee really exposed me to troubles that will plague our infrastructure over will plague our infrastructure over the coming years,” Geddes said.
What struck him the most throughout his work, Geddes said, was “the total lack of money” in infrastructure spending.
“Many states simply have no money to invest in infrastructure,” he said.
The program’s launch Wednesday, featuring talking and speeches, will culminate in an hour-long panel discussion moderated by Geddes.
About 85 individuals will attend the launch, according to John Zelenka ’03, one of the event’s main organizers. Zelenka said he expects that the majority of the attendees will be Cornell alumni, although a handful of the general public may also attend.
“We are choosing to launch in New York City to get as much publicity as possible,” Geddes said. “We have a relatively unique program in that what we do is incredibly relevant. While some parts of [the program] may be theoretical, all parts can have an obvious impact on the public. So we want feedback. We want to know what the public is thinking … [and] what change it wants to see.”
The three panelists will speak about some of the myriad facets of modern infrastructure, from high-speed rail to surface transportation funding to the private management of public transit systems.
Germà Bel, a visiting professor of economics from the University of Barcelona and one of the panelists, said he will talk about high speed rail transportation and its economic, industrial and environmental impacts at the event.
“Rick [Geddes] had told me he was trying to build this unit. I arrived here in July, knowing that I was going to be involved in this program, besides my core work in [the Department of City and Regional Planning], which is the department where I have my visiting position,” Bel said.
Bel plans to be in the U.S. until August 2013. During the next year, he intends to lecture in infrastructure-related classes, but not formally teach a class for Cornell.
Bel, like the other professors involved in the program, believes that the U.S. needs new infrastructure policy.