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October 31, 2016

Workforce development key part of USM's proposed infrastructure program

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
George N. Campbell Jr., foundation president at the University of Southern Maine, has been instrumental in the effort to create a Critical Infrastructure Institute at the university.

Maine Infrastructure Grades 2012 Report Card

GPA: C-

Aviation: B

Bridges: C-

Dams: D+

Drinking Water: C+

Education: C-

Energy: C+

Environmental Cleanup: C-

Parks: C+

Ports: C+

Rail: C

Roads: D

Solid Waste: C-

Transportation: C-

Wastewater: D+

A: Exceptional, B: Good, C: Mediocre, D: Poor, F: Failing, ?: Incomplete

Each category was evaluated on the basis of capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation..

Source: 2012 Report Card For Maine's Infrastructure, American Society of Civil Engineers

University of Southern Maine is raising money for a program that it says would offer key insights on Maine's infrastructure needs while creating job opportunities.

The Critical Infrastructure Institute, as the entity would be known, is being created to face the state's need for new and updated bridges, roads and water systems. USM hopes to act as a think tank, making recommendations, while training students to play a role in upgrading vital infrastructure.

The project, now in the exploratory phase, would have a "heavy emphasis on workforce development for industry professionals," George N. Campbell Jr., USM's foundation president and vice president of advancement, wrote in an email to Mainebiz.

"We anticipate [a launch in] January 2018, depending on the market, both students and professionals, and market demand for alternative project delivery and finance experience in both public-private sectors," he adds.

Thus far, USM has spent $176,000 to study the feasibility of the program. About half of the funding has come from the Maine Economic Improvement Team, a program of the University of Maine System, while the balance has been split between federal, state and private sources. The largest expense, $130,000, is earmarked for the Wathen Group for consulting, according to a USM document provided to Mainebiz.

The formation of the Critical Infrastructure Institute may be well timed.

Maine's infrastructure is due for an upgrade, according to a 2012 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave the state a C- in its most recent state-by-state assessment. Maine ranked only slightly better than the nation's average grade of D+.

The ASCE report takes into account aviation, roads, bridges, dams, energy, ports, education, drinking water systems, wastewater systems, solid waste systems, environmental cleanup, rail, transportation and parks. From the 2012 report, Maine's 35 airports and general aviation system were graded highest, with a B grade. Grades for every other category ranged from C+ (energy, ports, drinking water, parks) to D (roads). An updated ASCE report will be released Nov. 28.

Growth in university programs

Other universities have taken similar steps to build programs around critical infrastructure, though often with a wider interpretation of infrastructure. The field has grown as the nation spends more money on homeland security, whether it's to defend against terrorists or hackers trying to take down the nation's banking system.

  • The University of Illinois leads the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute, which is made up of a dozen organizations ranging from law enforcement to corporations. It conducts research and education to beef up the resiliency of the nation's critical infrastructure. It was funded with a $20 million, five-year grant from the Department of Homeland Security.
  • In Kentucky, nine universities are part of the Kentucky Homeland Security University Consortium, which "brings the knowledge resources of the state's universities and colleges to a research and development initiative that seeks to expand the spectrum of products and services used in homeland security critical infrastructure protection," according to the group's mission. It works with the National Institute for Hometown Security.
  • At Stanford University, the Center for International Security and Cooperation was launched earlier this year as part of the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute, which is led by the University of Illinois.
  • At Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, infrastructure is only one part of a larger focus. Research is used to prepare and respond to hurricanes, earthquakes, nuclear accidents, pandemic flu and terrorist attacks. Within that context, the center studies the potential impact of infrastructure "fragility."
  • At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, research focuses on natural and technological hazards. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it extended research to national security issues, including terrorism risk insurance and protection of critical infrastructure.

In Maine, the state's congressional delegation has helped guide a steady flow of federal money into upgrades for airports, ferry terminals, roads, channel and harbor dredging and fresh water systems, but also broadband and even island mail service.

In a speech in Portland in August, U.S. Sen. Angus King said at the top of the list of Maine's top-five challenges is the "aging and incomplete" infrastructure, according to a Bangor Daily News report at the time. He said many of the state's municipalities upgraded their water systems to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, but that was more than four decades ago and those systems need to be updated. Portland is spending $275 million to update its sewer infrastructure.

In the same speech King also cited the need to build out the state's broadband network.

"If you were looking at a house and the real estate agent said, 'It's great, but you'll never get broadband here,' would you really consider buying it?" King said, the BDN reported.

USM program would address workforce needs

USM's aim is to "create an institute designed to develop a public-private policy workforce to serve infrastructure development in the industrial sector," according to its mission statement.

A key part of USM's strategy would be to facilitate public-private partnerships to pay for infrastructure.

Shana Cook Mueller, a lawyer at Bernstein Shur, has been in support of the creation of the Critical Infrastructure Institute. She spoke at two conferences this year that addressed the need for infrastructure investment, including the MEREDA conference in September.

"My role in the recent knowledge-sharing exercises of the last few months was to raise awareness of the infrastructure-related challenges we have and the possibilities associated with public-private partnerships," says Mueller. "The CII is a great effort to do that and to build expertise and awareness in a more systematic and targeted way."

Mueller pointed to legislative efforts to broaden the use of public-private partnerships for infrastructure improvements, but added that local governments feel increasing pressure to control expenses, even those with a long-term benefit.

"My legal expertise is in municipal government law in Maine," Mueller says. "My observation from working with large and small communities all over the state is that there is a tremendous challenge for elected officials to balance the pressures of property tax rate control in setting an annual budget and the needs of infrastructure where large investments today pay dividends many years into the future. This balancing act is made more difficult when other sources of revenue — including municipal revenue sharing — are drying up for local governments."

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