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Does Obama Have the Vision?

The incoming president has a rare opportunity to transform America's infrastructure—making it smarter, safer and more efficient.
By Mark Roberti
Dec 15, 2008The incoming U.S. President, Barak Obama, has indicated he plans to launch an infrastructure program not seen in the United States since President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the interstate highway system program in the 1950s. It's not widely known in America, but that project paved the way (no pun intended) for much of the growth that followed, because companies were able to move goods to market more quickly and at lower cost.

Obama's goal is to create jobs and repair the country's aging infrastructure. Those are important goals, but he needs to do more than that. He needs to upgrade the infrastructure so it's smarter, safer, cleaner and more efficient. And he needs to make sure the money spent enables businesses to grow, protects the American people from terrorism and other threats, and makes it possible to move more goods to market with less impact on the environment. All of these goals can be accomplished by taking a holistic approach to deploying technology as part of the infrastructure program.

I'm talking about an infrastructure that includes roads, bridges, tunnels, ports and airports, and that goes beyond providing the means to move people and goods. It also monitors traffic patterns, the movement of goods, and operating and environmental conditions, in order to reduce congestion, secure the supply chain and cut pollution.

This is already beginning to happen at the local level. The adjoining seaports of Los Angeles and Long Beach had been operating at maximum capacity for years; as a result, they were choked with trucks lined up to collect and discharge cargo. The cost to business: longer lead times and higher shipping and fuel charges. The cost to the port: lost business, as some shippers chose other ports or planes to avoid delays. The cost to society: greater pollution, because idling trucks belched clouds of fumes into the air.

An RFID system known as PierPASS helped to solve all three of these problems. Trucks were outfitted with active RFID tags, and antennas were placed at all port entry points. When a truck approaches, the system determines whether the driver is authorized to enter, and the check-in process is handled electronically instead of manually, thereby reducing delays. The amount of pollution in the air is reduced by an estimated one-quarter pound for every half hour each truck saves in idling time while waiting to get into the port. And although the port can't get any bigger, more efficient loading and unloading means it can handle more business.

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