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Opinion: Resiliency -- The Critical Next Stage Beyond Repair and Rebuilding

Spending billions to rebuild misses the crux of the issue, and only guarantees that billions more will be spent next time.

Facing Our Future, a group of experts with substantial state government experience, recently released a report entitled, “Infrastructure Improvements Necessary for Economic Success.” It estimates that $70 billion in upgrades are needed to our state’s infrastructure -- if you include energy, water, and transportation.

The choice is not between spending $70 billion and spending nothing. Rather, the choice is one between investing in our future to dramatically reduce the costs of tomorrow's natural disasters or, alternatively, putting our heads in the sand by reacting to natural disasters only once they happen and spending billions of dollars to rebuild each time one comes down the pike.

The latter approach, as we have seen in the case of Sandy, results in greater loss of life, public health consequences, and severe economic losses and disruptions of residents and businesses.

Much the same note was struck at a statewide summit hosted by PlanSmart NJ on New Jersey’s infrastructure and community rebuilding needs in response to Sandy and other recent natural disasters. Held on the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the meeting brought together experts from utilities, government, and business.

While they reflected on the damage and costs incurred by Sandy, which are estimated at over $50 billion across the region, the experts also issued a clarion call for greater investment in infrastructure to mitigate damage and promote resilience in anticipation of the future natural disasters that seem all but certain to be part of New Jersey’s new normal.

The consensus of the experts present was that New Jersey’s infrastructure is in dire need of not just maintenance, but a complete overhaul. New Jersey needs to move beyond reacting to recurring natural disasters to planning intelligently to make our infrastructure more adaptable and resilient in the face of the increased likelihood of unpredictable and damaging weather.

Unfortunately, natural disasters such as Sandy have only further ravaged a system of infrastructure that was already in dire need of repair. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), New Jersey received a grade of C- on the overall quality of its infrastructure -- and that was back in 2009 -- before Sandy and before Irene.

Fortunately, some leaders are starting to call for better planning and more robust infrastructure investment upfront. For instance, Ralph Izzo, Chairman and CEO of PSE&G, recently announced a PSE&G Energy Strong plan. It would invest $3.9 billion over 10 years in PSE&G’s service territory, which serves over 2 million customers.

Of the funds, $1.7 billion would be used to protect 31 switching and substations that were flooded and substantially damaged in recent storms. In addition, $1.04 billion would be used to modernize and replace 750 miles of low-pressure cast iron gas mains in or near flood areas; $454 million would be used for smart-grid technologies to effectively monitor system operations; $215 million would be used to improve pole distribution systems; $200 million would be dedicated to creating system redundancy to reduce outages; $140 million would protect nine gas-metering stations; and $60 million would move above ground utility lines underground.

The anticipated payoff? During Hurricane Sandy, 90 percent, or 1.9 million, of PSE&G’s customers lost power. PSE&G estimates that were these upgrades in place, 800,000 customers would have maintained their power and many others would have gotten it back much sooner. An added benefit is that the Energy Strong plan would create about 5,800 jobs in weak economic times.

These -- and other -- measures are sorely needed and offer forward-thinking solutions to prevent flooded substations, power outages, inoperable refineries and resulting gas shortages, downed transportation facilities, and the host of other challenges to our energy infrastructure that we face each time a natural disaster strikes.

Other private and public sector players in the energy, transportation, and water utility fields should follow PSE&G’s lead and take this opportunity not just to repair and rebuild, but to consider what investments need to be made to make NJ more resilient, safe, and economically competitive for the long-term.

Lucy Vandenberg is the executive director of PlanSmart NJ, a statewide nonprofit research and advocacy organization that advances the quality of community life through sound land use planning and regional cooperation. She can be reached at

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