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Rethinking 21st century needs

A full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is

A full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is displayed at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. on Feb. 26, 2015. Credit: AP

U.S. infrastructure is crumbling under its own lack of innovation.

While the country scrambles to figure out how to fund infrastructure projects, the root of the problem lies in the lack of change over the past century. Almost all of the country’s main infrastructure was designed between 1920 and 1960. The Babylon line of the Long Island Rail Road, one of the most heavily used branches, was completed in 1867. The Queens-Midtown Tunnel was completed in 1940. Even the Long Island Expressway is nearing its 60th anniversary.

Our subways, highways, sewer systems, power lines, airports and rail cars were never meant to handle the loads they do now, even with patchwork upgrades made over the decades.

By 2025, our failing infrastructure is estimated to cost the country 25 million jobs, $4 trillion in gross domestic product, and almost $3,500 in per-person disposable income a year, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Ideally, the society would like federal and state governments to work together to spend roughly $3.6 trillion to fix the country’s infrastructure by 2020. But, the ideal goals are just that — ideal. That $3.6 trillion isn’t just lying around.

Some groups are turning to public-private partnerships to find funding. The partnerships allow private groups to fund, build and operate projects. Revenue from the facilities then goes to the developers.

New York State, which unveiled a $100 billion plan to repair state infrastructure, is spending $4 billion to renovate LaGuardia Airport and $10 billion to redesign Kennedy Airport. Both are using public-private partnerships to accelerate the planning and building.

However, the model doesn’t necessarily mean progress. Private companies, which are only going to go as far as the government asks them to, do not necessarily have any incentive to add revolutionary technology to the projects. The partnerships will fix today’s issues, but often nothing more.

President Donald Trump promised his version of a public-private partnership investment in infrastructure in the first 100 days of his presidency. He had promised a $1 trillion plan that would touch on almost all of the country’s main infrastructure needs. The idea of replacing and innovating all of the country’s infrastructure is far-fetched, but his commitment is the right first step.

Innovation comes from necessity, and our infrastructure is at that point. Whether through private or government investment, the first dollar should be spent on pushing boundaries to better prepare for the future. And while innovation is happening in scattered instances across the country, we need to move forward on a much larger scale.

For instance, Dubai’s international airport will begin using “drone taxis” in July to reduce traffic congestion. The electric drones will take a single passenger anywhere within 30 miles of the airport.

China is using automated buses to increase efficiency in public transportation. Its buses have traveled at 40 mph and have merged with traffic without any issues in the last two years.

French Polynesia is taking infrastructure to the ocean with its Seasteading Project. French Polynesia and California’s Seasteading Institute are building a self-sustaining island off their coast by 2020 as a pilot to demonstrate the ability to create floating cities to prepare for rising sea levels.

In the United States, utilities like DC Water in Washington are turning biowaste into fuel at their wastewater treatment sites, which provide power for the station and act as a filter for water entering the water table.

Innovation is difficult. It takes time and money. However, if the country is going to embrace the challenges of the 21st century, future needs, not patchwork problem-solving, should be at the forefront.

Jager Robinson is an intern with Newsday Opinion.