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Harvard professor warns of infrastructure woes

Harrison Hill for The Boston Globe

Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s book on the nation’s transport system is a departure from her previous lines of study.

By Jay Fitzgerald Globe Correspondent 

Rosabeth Moss Kanter ranks among the country’s best known and most influential business scholars, the author of 18 books on strategy, innovation, and leadership that have helped shape the way corporate America thinks about everything from boardroom practices to gender issues.

Her 2004 bestseller, “Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End,” examined how corporate attitudes drive success for businesses, sports teams, and other organizations. “Men and Women of the Corporation,” first published in 1977, is considered a landmark work on corporate power and its relationship to women. “The Change Masters,” her study of why some companies are more innovative than others, was described by the Financial Times newspaper as one of the most influential business books of the 20th Century.

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Now Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, has turned her analytical skills and original thinking to an unlikely topic: the nation’s transportation system. In her 19th book, the recently published “Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead,” Kanter sounds the alarm for addressing the nation’s crumbling highways, failing bridges, choked rail lines, and bottlenecked airports, urging policy makers to radically rethink how they approach infrastructure issues.

Kanter admits her latest book seems to be a detour from her previous lines of study, as she dives into the history of America’s railroad, highway, and airline systems and their decline over the past half century.

“It’s somewhat different, but it’s not that different,” Kanter said. “Here we have a big infrastructure problem in America — and how are we going to solve it? It’s still about leadership. Every leadership study I’ve done applies to this issue.”

To Kanter, the infrastructure problem is not just about the infuriating daily inconveniences that she and other travelers face every day, from traffic jams caused by the closure of deteriorating bridges to airline flights delayed by outdated technologies used for weather forecasts. The poor state of the nation’s transportation infrastructure and the resulting inefficiencies cost consumers and businesses tens of billions of dollars a year in lost time and opportunities, eroding the nation’s ability to compete in the global economy, Kanter said.

How big is the problem? It depends on the definition of “infrastructure.” The US Department of Transportation estimates that improving the condition and performance of the existing highway system would cost anywhere from $35 billion to $59 billion a year through 2030. The nation’s transit system would need an annual infusion of an additional $8 billion to $10 billion a year to improve the performance of passenger rail systems.

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These figures don’t include the costs of maintaining and upgrading the airports, water and sewer systems, ports, broadband networks, and the electric grid. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the nation would need to invest nearly $3.6 trillion by 2020 in 16 infrastructure categories — which also include dams, pipelines, and parks — to maintain and upgrade them modestly.

Politically, the infrastructure challenge is daunting. Congressional leaders can’t even agree on a bill that would distribute about $50 billion a year for routine maintenance of the highway system. In Washington’s partisan atmosphere, House and Senate leaders are still trying to find a long-term compromise to avoid the shutdown of road and bridge projects across the country.

But Kanter and other analysts say it’s not just partisan and ideological gridlock in Washington undermining the critical public works that support the US economy. It’s also outdated political, bureaucratic, and regulatory mindsets that don’t adapt quickly enough to social changes and technological innovations.

For instance, the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the upkeep of the interstate highway system, is going broke, in part because it relies on a half-century-old system that taxes fuels by the gallon. As cars have become more fuel-efficient, they can travel more miles on less gasoline, increasing wear-and-tear on highways while generating fewer taxes to maintain them.

Clifford Winston, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said government policies are stuck in a bygone era, with policy makers hesitating to embrace reforms and new technologies that could improve the performance of transportation systems in small and large ways. One example is a roadway pricing system that would charge trucks more to use highways unless they make design changes that reduce their wear and tear on roads and bridges.

“Smart traffic light” technologies — which monitor and change traffic signals according to real-time traffic congestion — are not getting deployed as fast as they could to improve traffic flow, he said. Sensors that can detect the stress and strains on bridges are available — and yet aren’t widely used.

“The entire system is riddled with status quo bias,” Winston said. “We need efficiencies. We need to get the pricing right before we invest more into the infrastructure.”

Kanter, 72, said she decided to tackle infrastructure after a career studying the workings of corporate America because of her involvement in Harvard Business School’s US Competitiveness Project and Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, which she cofounded and still chairs. As she talked with experienced business and government leaders, she heard again and again about the woeful state of the nation’s road system, energy system, and aviation system. Numerous surveys show that infrastructure improvements are at the top of business leaders’ priorities.

It became a subject Kanter found both fascinating and hard to ignore. In addition, the subject tied into her past scholarly work on strategy, leadership, and innovation — or lack thereof when it comes to addressing infrastructure.

A native of Cleveland, Kanter was a prolific writer as a girl, penning an unfinished novel when she was 11. At Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, she first thought of majoring in English, but switched to sociology, went to graduate school, and earned her doctorate in sociology from the University of Michigan.

She taught at Brandeis University, Yale University, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education before joining the Harvard Business School in 1986, with several business-related books already under her belt.

In her new book, Kanter pounds away at the inefficiencies embedded in the transportation system. For example, iPads and similar mobile devices have become part of daily life, Kanter writes, but airports have yet to distribute them widely to workers for simple tasks such as obtaining weather reports for pilots.

In particular, Kanter urges policy makers and regulators to listen to and work with private-sector entrepreneurs and innovators pushing new ideas, both big and small, even if ideas initially seem far-fetched.

Kanter points to the recent completion of the new PortMiami Tunnel as an example of how the private and public sectors can work together to achieve results. Designed to divert about 16,000 trucks and cars per day away from downtown Miami’s streets, the 4,200-foot-long, $1 billion tunnel runs under Biscayne Bay. It was largely financed by a company, Miami Access Tunnel, through a 35-year concession contract with the state of Florida. Opened last year, the tunnel connects Miami’s busy cargo and shipping port with nearby highways, improving the port’s efficiency while relieving downtown traffic congestion.

The nation needs similar public-private partnerships to get many other major projects done, Kanter writes. But that would require significant and hard changes in attitudes and outlooks.

“Old assumptions no longer hold,” she writes, “but the policies endure.”

In an interview, Kanter said there was a time after the end of World War II when America’s infrastructure was the envy of the world. But she said the nation grew complacent, allowing infrastructure spending to decline and new approaches to languish.

“Now we’ve fallen behind,” she said. “We’re [still] living in policies dating back 50 to 60 years ago.”


Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at jayfitzmedia@gmail.com.