In our last post on the GovDesignHub, we featured the first part of a two-part Q&A interview with the American Society of Civil Engineer’s (ASCE) Casey Dinges. During our discussion with Casey, we talked about the current status of our nation’s critical infrastructure, which received a D+ rating in the ASCE’s recent Infrastructure Report Card. Casey also shared how Congress will need to prioritize infrastructure spending to move the U.S. beyond its barely passing grade.
In the second part of our discussion, we talked with Casey about the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic and how it could impact the infrastructure investment and repair projects across our nation. Casey explained how, when faced with adversity, the U.S. has historically been at its best. He also described some of the opportunities for infrastructure investment that may arise when the pandemic subsides.
Here is what he had to say:
GDH: There is a theme being discussed that a recession is impending post-COVID-19. One idea is that a way to overcome this recession is to invest heavily in infrastructure projects. Is this the time to seize the moment and move the country forward through this type of investment?
Casey Dinges: Now is the perfect time to invest in our nation’s infrastructure. There are two different timeframes to look at when using infrastructure as a means of economic recovery: immediate relief and long-term recovery, both of which should incorporate infrastructure investment. Infrastructure is the backbone of the U.S. economy. It is critical to our nation’s prosperity and the public’s health and welfare.
With Americans enduring an increasing economic burden due to the COVID-19 pandemic, investing in our infrastructure now is one way to lessen the economic burden on Americans in the long-term. These investments will help both large and small businesses and provide opportunities for Americans to get back to work. Additionally, investing in our infrastructure systems will help to keep the economy moving – and recover quickly from the economic shock associated with COVID-19.
The CARES Act was a good start, addressing declining revenues in multiple infrastructure sectors by providing $25 billion to public transit agencies and $1 billion to Amtrak, along with $10 billion to airports. The Act also unlocked the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF), sending its current balance of $9.3 billion to harbor maintenance dredging.
The House HEROES Act was another good start, and we were pleased to see relief for state Departments of Transportation (DOT), but the bill only allotted $15 billion for state DOTs, which barely scratches the surface. State DOTs have called on Congress to include $50 billion as an immediate revenue backstop for them, which is a step that will keep our economy and the American people moving. This funding will ensure capital construction and operation programs continue in a timely fashion, preserving safety and mobility across our nation’s transportation systems.
State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) are struggling with a 50 percent loss in state gas tax revenue and individual state DOTs facing revenue losses of up to 45 percent over the next 18 months. Water utilities are seeing decreased revenues due to state-led memorandums to continue service throughout the crisis to families no longer able to afford their bill, which could later result in water rate hikes. America’s economy, on the whole, has also taken a hit, with more than 40 million Americans now out of work as a result of COVID-19.
FDR utilized infrastructure investment as a means of kickstarting the economy following the Great Depression, to great success. President Trump and Congress can and should do the same, pushing forth a long-awaited infrastructure bill that has been brought to the table since the beginning of Trump’s presidency.
An infrastructure bill that closes our $2 trillion funding gap would create jobs when they are needed most, and improve the systems that allow for transport of goods, services, and employees. Investing now provides a unique opportunity to complete or advance projects in a time where there is less usage or congestion than ever before, meaning less disruptions for citizens and more efficient construction timelines for agencies.
There has not been a more beneficial time to invest in America’s infrastructure in modern history than today, but the time to take advantage of less people on the roads is shrinking as states begin to ease stay-at-home orders.
GDH: Is the idea of a fourth Industrial Revolution a valid one? Is this the right time? What is to gain beyond infrastructure improvement?
Casey Dinges: A fourth Industrial Revolution is undoubtedly coming, so ASCE began preparing for this wave in 2018 with its Future World Vision concept. Future World Vision is an immersive computer model that creates future worlds based on possible scenarios regarding demographic, environmental and technological changes we could experience in the decades to come. Exploring these possibilities allows engineers to determine how to shape a future world that is safe, resilient and sustainable. Now is the time to prepare for the world that is to come.
Robust infrastructure leads to a thriving economy, improved safety and a greater quality of life for all. As we continue to experience severe weather events, the need for climate-resilient infrastructure grows. Outdated structures need to be improved to combat severe weather events, and new structures need to be built with environmental impacts in mind.
State-of-the-art water treatment facilities are needed to keep our drinking water safe, upgraded dams are needed to keep our communities from flooding, hazardous waste sites must be able to safely dispose of chemicals that threaten our health, and our surface transportation networks must undergo necessary maintenance to prevent potentially fatal accidents.
Our economy depends on reliable infrastructure to maintain its place in the global marketplace. Our nation’s ports and airports are responsible for the exchange of goods with foreign entities and must be able to withstand continual shipments in our increasingly globalized world. Our highways, bridges, rail and transit systems move goods and services throughout the nation, which can’t be accomplished with traffic delays on poorly maintained structures.
GDH: Revolutionary change needs practical elements alongside big ideas. What skill sets or tools do architects, planners, and designers need to bring to the table to participate in improving the infrastructure in the U.S.?
Casey Dinges: ASCE is a strong advocate for the implementation of risk management tools such as quantitative risk assessment and comparative and probabilistic risk analysis to determine safety hazards associated with new projects. By using risk management techniques, the public can make informed decisions on how to allocate limited resources and better protect the health and welfare of citizens.
The previously mentioned design-build delivery system is another method for making projects more efficient and saving companies or government agencies money. We also mentioned previously about incorporating ASCE standards into our infrastructure.
For example, ASCE standards that promote safety, reliability, productivity, and efficiency in civil engineering, such as ASCE 7 – a consensus-based engineering standard that is the primary reference of structural design requirements in all U.S. building codes – address seismic resilience. When the next “big event” happens, a variety of factors will determine which structures would incur the most damage, and engineers have been hard at work to mitigate those risks through proactive improvements to building design standards and codes, along with research and inspection.
I encourage you to take a look at our letters, comments, and statements on our policy positions on recent infrastructure policy issues.
To learn more about rebuilding America’s infrastructure and the role that digital design solutions play in the AEC lifecycle of large infrastructure projects, click HERE, to register for the upcoming “Infrastructure Tuesday” series of Webinars.