At the end of the 1990s, towns across the state of Washington suffered from serious infrastructure problems. Many municipalities could not improve or even maintain their citizens' quality of life without bringing in more money to build and maintain roads, bridges, water, sewer and stormwater facilities. The state required towns to prepare plans for sustainable infrastructure growth in 6-year cycles, but, for a variety of reasons, these projections were often of little use.
While larger cities were able to identify their needs and put forth sophisticated plan, some smaller towns could not marshal the resources to draw up complex plans, or were unsure about how much growth their towns would experience. Further, many cities complained that plans for growth should be developed over the long term, not just for 6-year periods.
By 2001, the city of Olympia, home to 40,000 people, had already started to craft a development plan outlining a sustainable path forward for the next century, one that kept environmental protection front and center. In order to aid their planning process, in 2003, Olympia commissioned the creation of easy-to-use software that could make infrastructure planning easier, called Sustainable Technology, Engineering, Planning and Strategies (STEPS).
The STEPS software works entirely through Microsoft's popular Excel spreadsheet program, so that even very small towns with employees trained only in basic office software can use it with ease. The software identifies common units that go into larger infrastructure costs, like feet of new curb or miles of road, and asks towns to identify how much they will need. It also asks for other costs, like the funds needed to launch campaigns for public support, and then computes the projected cost for infrastructure change.
After seeing Olympia's ambitious plan, the state offered to help fund the development if the software could be accessible to cities across Washington. This unusual collaboration of city and state resources allowed Olympia to make its initiative for green city planning more comprehensive. The state identified a useful innovation in one city and used the work already done there to benefit the rest of the state.
STEPS' standardized data has allowed state officials to meet the infrastructure needs of all of the towns in Washington, while emphasizing the environmental friendliness that Washington voters deemed important. State officials, armed with a more realistic understanding of the costs facing them, can more easily identify how much money they can invest on green technologies each year. The centralized data also allows the state of Washington to plan for its infrastructure needs over the long term, an important change from past practices.
Further, state officials are now able to identify common problems and import technology to deal with them statewide. In one case, officials were able to forward sustainability goals by purchasing innovative European street-cleaning technologies that had never been used in the U.S. The technology seemed very expensive, but a long-term assessment of road management needs revealed that it was a cost-effective way to meet state policy goals.
STEPS helps towns in Washington identify many such possible innovations each year, in fields ranging from transportation to energy to stormwater management. The easy-to-use software could be easily adapted to help other states reach their developmental and environmental goals.