First 100 Days: Infrastructure investment can transform the U.S.

overgrown pothole

Roads, a major part of U.S. infrastructure, have suffered from decades of deferred maintenance due to a lack of investment.

Editor’s note: President Joe Biden knows the ways that infrastructure can shape people’s lives and transform the United States. Biden’s Infrastructure Plan, unveiled March 31 as part of his first 100 days agenda, recognizes infrastructure in the broadest sense of the word, and includes funding to address both physical and social needs of the nation during the next eight years.

The investments proposed respond to pent-up demands from various sectors of the economy and society with the intent of creating jobs and addressing climate change while providing a foundation for future economic growth. While infrastructure is a popular item for politicians of both parties, the $2 trillion price tag on this package ­– and the proposed increase in corporate taxes to pay for it – will spark vigorous debate in Congress and among interest groups that make both the fate and timing of the legislation uncertain. 

Three members of the Colorado State University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering weigh in on what such an investment would mean for the nation.

What is infrastructure?

The American Society of Civil Engineers considers 18 different categories of infrastructure in its most recent Report Card on America’s Infrastructure, including traditional categories such as roads and bridges or drinking water and wastewater, as well as categories essential to quality of life such as schools and public parks. Addressing climate change requires focus on new technologies in infrastructure sectors such as energy and transportation, while the pandemic has emphasized the need for universal broadband access.

When thinking about infrastructure, it is important to remember that significant investments are needed not only to build new infrastructure systems, but to repair, retrofit, replace or renew existing infrastructure.

Many of our basic infrastructure systems were built many decades ago, and may not be adequate for current needs and often have suffered from years of deferred maintenance. The poor condition of our infrastructure translates to costs for Americans who sit in traffic jams and pay for car repairs, lack adequate access to the Internet for work and school, and manufacturers who must deal with unreliable utilities.

To successfully prepare for the future, the infrastructure package needs to advance sustainability, resilience and equity.

Sustainability

By its very nature, most infrastructure is designed to last a long time, and the choices we make now will impact society well into the future.

Sustainable infrastructure is designed considering economic, environmental and societal impacts. Infrastructure projects need to use fiscal resources wisely and be designed considering costs over their full lifespan so as to not unduly burden future generations with operations and maintenance costs that could have been mitigated through better initial design.

Infrastructure is closely tied to efforts to combat climate change as transportation accounts for about 28% of greenhouse gas emissions. Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $621 billion for transportation projects, including items such as public transit ($85 billion) and incentives for electric vehicle adoption and building out charging infrastructure ($174 billion).

The social component of sustainability can be harder to define, but sustainability rating systems such as Envision are providing guidance about how to involve communities in planning and construction processes, preserve and enhance cultural and historic sites, and improve quality of life along with health and safety. The Biden plan’s investments in workforce development align with hire local requirements that are intended to ensure economic benefits to communities. At Colorado State University, our college is in the process of expanding its curricular offerings and research activities in sustainability.

Resilience

Photo (left to right of) CSU faculty Rebecca Atadero, Neil Grigg and John van de Lindt

Rebecca Atadero, Neil Grigg and John van de Lindt are faculty members in the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering.

Resilience is the ability to prepare for and recover rapidly from disruptions that include chronic stressors such as climate change. As sea levels continue to rise, eroding away U.S. coastline, the ability to include climate-adaptive designs for infrastructure will be a key feature requiring a reimagining of the integrative civil engineering infrastructure design process.

At the same time, an increasing socio-economic divide makes the need to equitably allocate resources all the more important. Consider that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by repetitive flooding and often do not recover before the next flood.

The Biden proposal seeks to reduce these and other racial inequalities through tax credits to build or renovate 500,000 homes in underserved communities, and grant incentives for communities that adopt more equitable zoning practices.

Social institutions, such as schools and health care networks, and housing recovery are key to the resilience of a community following disruptive events, but understanding their integration into infrastructure resilience is still being explored, including right here at CSU.

Equity and inclusion

Ultimately, infrastructure is built to support the people within a community. Sustainability and resilience both recognize the limitations of engineering design that achieves technical goals without addressing social needs. Equity deserves particular attention in how we build the infrastructure of the future because of the ways it has been constructed unfairly in the past.

Infrastructure can have profound effects on people’s lives, as factors such as proximity to sources of pollution and walkability of neighborhoods impact health, while access to transportation or broadband impact economic factors such as education and employment. Such things have become even more apparent as a result of the current pandemic.

As the U.S. works to confront systemic racism, we need to remember the systemic impacts of the infrastructure we currently have and of the infrastructure we build for the future. Biden’s plan includes $20 billion for communities that have been harmed by inequitable transportation projects in the past,  and investments in research and education with funds reserved for HBCUs and other minority serving institutions.

At CSU, several classes in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department are incorporating new curriculum to talk about the role of engineering projects in equitable outcomes, and research centered on Community Resilience studies the physical-social-economic nexus through various lenses including social vulnerability.

Infrastructure is often associated with the fields of civil engineering and construction, but building the infrastructure of the future to be sustainable, resilient and equitable will require the input and efforts of a wide array of disciplines including engineers, scientists, planners, economists and information technologists, from all backgrounds.

Rebecca Atadero, Neil Grigg and John van de Lindt