Street Smarts

Repairing roofs, roads, bridges and our electrical grid would give the economy a kick-start. But only if we do it wisely

  • Photograph by Brad Temkin for TIME

    The view from the green roof atop the Kensington Creative and Performing arts High School in Philadelphia, September 16, 2011.

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    Instead, the city has launched a remarkably aggressive campaign to keep storm water out of its sewers in the first place with the help of rain barrels and rain gardens, vegetated green roofs and permeable green roads, new trees and new parks. A green road looks like any other road, but rain that falls on it slowly percolates underground instead of zipping into a storm drain. The eventual goal is to capture runoff from one-third of the city's impervious surfaces and make 15 sq. mi. of man-made, urban jungle function more like a natural forest.

    Nutter, who has pledged to turn Philadelphia into the greenest city in America, has a nice riff about treating water as a resource instead of a waste product and how it's fun to convert parking lots into parks. But he isn't some tie-dyed hippie tree hugger. He wouldn't be so excited about green infrastructure if he didn't think it could help him comply with the Clean Water Act for about $7 billion less than a giant tunnel would cost.

    "It's revolutionary, but it's really a no-brainer," Nutter says. "We help the environment, and we don't have to waste all that money tearing up the city."

    What Nutter and his team are doing with porous basketball courts and man-made wetlands is a model — not just for wastewater projects, which the EPA expects to cost the U.S. nearly $400 billion by 2030, but also for the reconstruction of a cash-strapped country. And just as smart water management can save money and the environment, so can a more strategic approach to electric power. During the 2008 campaign, Obama got fired up about the smart grid. America's electric grid is an analog network trying to survive in a digital world, reliant on switches that still need to be switched by hand and transformers that haven't been transformed in a century. Alexander Graham Bell would be flabbergasted by modern telecommunications, but Thomas Edison would still recognize the technology in our substations. Like the sewer system, the power grid is classic infrastructure: out of sight, out of mind — except when it doesn't work, like the time tree branches knocked down lines outside Cleveland in 2003 and blacked out most of eight states.

    But even if the federal government had the money to magically upgrade the system, connect sunny deserts and windy plains to populous cities (the grid part) and install digital meters that could give consumers real-time feedback about their electricity use (the smart part), it would not solve the problem or be the best use of taxpayer funds. Utilities own most of the grid, and they can afford to upgrade it themselves. The real obstacles to new power lines are states and not-in-my-backyard communities that deny the necessary permits, as well as arcane cost-allocation issues that require regulators to make clear who would benefit from the projects. Those are the kind of problems that even a gigantic spending package can't solve.

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