US to spend $1.2trn on infrastructure. Is that enough?

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    The US Congress has finally passed President Joe Biden’s US$1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and although the President has hailed this as a ‘monumental step” a leading professional organisation says the Bill is unlikely to cure all of the problems in the US infrastructure sector.

    According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the US investment deficit for improving roads, bridge, wastewater, ports and airports is US$2.7 trillion, more than twice the size of the Bill which has just been passed. In addition to that, the Society believes that congestion and other infrastructure inefficiencies cost an annual US$500 billion in lost GDP.

    The Society points to decades of underinvestment as eroding the nation’s infrastructure base. Every four years it publishes a Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, and for the last two years the average result has been a ‘D’.

    The 2021 report came in at a C minus, and although this is a marginal improvement the Society still notes that the state of US infrastructure still represents risks to the economy, security and public health. As much as 43% of the nation’s roads are in poor to mediocre condition, according to the report.

     “Funding infrastructure is a significant problem in part because we’ve let deficiencies accumulate over time. We spend only when we have to fix something,” said Brad Allenby, a President’s Professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

    In an article published by the University, Allenby said that this was ultimately “a very expensive way to manage infrastructure”

    “It means that we’re always tackling significant problems, whether it’s roads that become essentially impassable because of potholes or fragmentation of the power grid, the consequences of which Texas suffered very recently,” he said.

    “We continually ‘fix’ our infrastructure systems, but we don’t invest to bring them up to necessary standards. That needs to change.”

    Biden’s bill commits $115 billion to renew 20,000 miles of roads and 10,000 bridges. Much of the current network was designed for 40 years of use, but those resources are now more than 60 years old and unstable.

    “We need a national mandate for every new critical structure to have a minimum of 100 years of serviceability,” said Narayanan Neithalath, a Fulton Schools professor of civil and environmental engineering specializing in concrete materials.

    “The incremental cost of the necessary design and construction upgrades would be miniscule compared to the costs of ongoing structural overhauls.”

    Neithalath also advocates a uniform federal approach to the use of materials material, saying it would be more efficient than current, fragmented systems of decision making.

    “For example, a new bridge structure can be built with ultra-high-performance concrete that undergoes extensive development and testing under the guidance of the Department of Transportation,” Neithalath said.

    “But rather than rely on those testing outcomes, another agency might initiate its own research on the same materials when determining how to build another structure. Central management could eliminate these wasteful disconnects and allow rapid permeation of impactful technologies into multiple use cases.”

    One major issue which has emerged since Biden announced his plan has been the age of the water infrastructure, emphasised by the problems in Jackson, Mississippi, where flooding was a catalyst for a system fail which left more than 100,000 people without safe drinking water.

    America has just under 150,000 public water system treatment facilities and a large number are in an advanced state of decay, as is a 2.2 million mile pipe network.

    The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that there is a crack somewhere in the buried water system ever two minutes, while treatment plants constructed after the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 are at the end of their 50 year lifespans.

    According to the Environmental Protection Agency, around 14% of treated water is lost to leaks, and some systems report losses of up to 60%. 

    There are many opinions on what is wrong with infrastructure planning in the US, but one view comes from Shannon Peloquin, a leader of McKinsey’s Capital Projects & Infrastructure practice.

    In a roundtable on infrastructure published recently in the Wall Street Journal, Peloquin said the problem derived from a “complex and hands-off” approach to planning, which created slow and siloed decision making which also lacked accountability.

    “The complexity and scale of what we are expecting the public sector to deliver—especially with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—is exceptional,” said Peloquin.

    “But when it comes to taking advantage of innovative new capabilities, like advanced analytics and pushing predictive maintenance into the guts of relevant agency operations, there is a lack of support in terms of professional development, training and investment.

    “There has to be more encouragement for the public sector to innovate and experiment as opposed to a system that is currently oriented to reducing risks at all costs and needing significant precedent to do something differently. Change is hard.”

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