Director of the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University Jan Beecher presented Master of Public Policy students with an engaging overview of Michigan’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission Report and discussion of her own work with the Commission and at IPU. This was a great opportunity for students to hear from an expert about a critical and complex policy area.
Dr. Beecher has several decades of experience in applied research and is an expert in public utility regulation. As Director, she performs a wide variety of duties at IPU, including guiding research, managing development, communications, funding, and the Institute’s educational and program work. She was one of 27 individuals appointed to the infrastructure commission when it was formed by Governor Rick Snyder in 2016.
The Commission was charged with studying Michigan’s infrastructure and related issues and developing recommendations. The water crisis in Flint was a key impetus. Their goal was to assess conditions and make recommendations for how Michigan should invest in its public infrastructure. Safety, reliability, and affordability are a few of the key qualities by which infrastructure can be measured.
IPU-MSU trains regulators from across the U.S. and from many other countries. Utility regulation is a very interdisciplinary area, drawing on public policy, economics, law, accounting, finance, and engineering. Beecher sees the economic regulation as one of several policy domains affecting utilities and infrastructure, which provides checks and balances. Infrastructure can be complicated because of its nature, including the mix of public and private operations and incentives.
As Beecher noted, American infrastructure as a whole gets low marks from the American Society for Civil Engineers. Michigan’s state and local infrastructure spending per capita is about 60% of the U.S. average.
Beecher shared her view that governance is one of the most important aspects of infrastructure. Getting funding commitments from stakeholders, especially elected officials, and motivating action is harder than finding good ideas. The commission’s findings and recommendations were based on a comprehensive approach and a consensus process
Beecher emphasized the importance of bringing a consumer perspective into the discussions. While nearly everyone is reluctant to accept tax increases and higher rates, their can be especially hard on low-income households. The commission held listening tours throughout the state, but public engagement is an ongoing need.
The commission took the view that infrastructure as a “multi-year, multi-generational” challenge but that meeting it “creates a foundation for the future.” Safe and reliable infrastructure is critical for protecting public health. Good infrastructure can also help build a strong economy and livable communities, which can help attract and keep workers.
Road conditions, broadband access, and water are especially popular infrastructure topics in Michigan. Beecher also explained that more effort is needed in terms of optimizing systems in cities with heavy population loss to help lower the cost of infrastructure over the long term. Coordinated planning and asset management are critical tools in this area.
The report’s recommendations include the creation of a state infrastructure council and regional pilot programs. Despite the immense challenges, there are also opportunities, including the idea of making energy, water, and transportation systems “smart.”
Dr. Beecher’s talk with MPP students illustrated how critical and complex issues like infrastructure can be, and how policy analysis can play a role. Her presentation provided a great introduction to infrastructure for those unfamiliar with the topic. You can read the Commission’s report here.