Biden’s laws pump billions into new infrastructure and could be a rare opportunity to make communities safer and more sustainable

By | March 11, 2024

  • The US needs to invest $2.6 trillion in infrastructure over the next decade, civil engineers say.

  • President Joe Biden has signed three laws aimed at financing rural infrastructure projects.

  • This article is part of “Transforming Business: Infrastructure,” a series examining the developments that are reshaping America’s infrastructure.

The state of America’s infrastructure is poor. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a C-minus in 2021, saying the U.S. needed about $2.6 trillion in infrastructure investment over the next decade.

Fortunately, infrastructure investments are one of the few remaining bipartisan priorities. And after years of unfulfilled infrastructure promises in Washington, President Joe Biden has signed three major bills into law — the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 — aimed at sending hundreds of people abroad . of billions of dollars in various infrastructure projects across the country.

Most of the work needed is in repairing and maintaining existing infrastructure, experts say. Transport requires the most resources, but also requires major investments in expanding water, energy and broadband internet. A large part of our built environment is aging and is under pressure due to population growth and the consequences for the climate.

“According to the data, we are almost certainly in an era of repair and replace.” Joseph Kane, said a colleague at the Brookings Institution who specializes in infrastructure. “Yes, there is a need for new facilities, but overall, much of our infrastructure is worn out.”

And in some cases, communities even have too much infrastructure, such as an underutilized highway or water system.

“We’ve built way too much infrastructure, and we really have no plan or capacity to actually take care of all that we’ve built,” said Charles Marohn, a land use planner and founder of the urban planning nonprofit Strong Towns.

One way to address this is to build denser communities so that more people use – and pay for – the infrastructure. This would also help address the country’s severe housing shortage and affordability crisis.

“This is a great opportunity to build a lot of housing in existing neighborhoods and connect them to systems that need more users,” Marohn said.

But simply throwing money at our infrastructure problems won’t solve them. We face a host of policy and planning challenges, including the need to redesign transportation infrastructure to be greener and more inclusive, build more sustainable and efficient water systems, and prioritize small-scale, high-impact projects at the neighborhood level.

With hundreds of billions of dollars in new financing, the U.S. has a rare opportunity to invest in critical infrastructure that could reshape the nation’s transportation, water, energy and broadband infrastructure. Kane and Marohn say rethinking the way we design infrastructure will be key to building a healthier, more sustainable future. This means prioritizing projects such as redesigning roads to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists and expanding public transportation over widening highways and building new roads.

Railroad workers watch from a bridge before U.S. President Joe Biden arrives to speak at the Baltimore and Potomac (B&P) Tunnel North Portal on January 30, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Railroad workers atop a bridge before President Joe Biden’s arrival to speak at the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel North Portal in Baltimore.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rethinking the way we build and rebuild infrastructure

When we think of infrastructure, we often envision major projects, including building bridges and highways, expanding airports and expanding the electrical grid. Billion-dollar projects – such as a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco or an extension of the Long Island Rail Road in New York – are often massively delayed and over budget.

Many crucial projects that have a disproportionate impact on communities are much smaller in scale. But cities and states are incentivized to focus on large, federally funded projects because that’s where the money is. The focus on securing federal funding means that the infrastructure priorities of many state and local governments are more responsive to what the White House and Congress want than to what a local community wants and needs.

“In practice, it is very difficult for the federal government to do a project that costs less than half a million dollars, and many of the projects that are desperately needed now are $5,000, $10,000 and $20,000 projects ,” Marohn said.

These include non-vehicle transportation projects such as pedestrian bridges and urban bike paths and neighborhood-level projects such as park improvements.

Marohn added that resources were also wasted in the pursuit of federal money: “Instead of spending $100,000 on five small neighborhood projects, we hire a grant writer for $100,000 to pursue the large federal project.”

Marohn pointed to the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan to expand the I-35 freeway, which runs through downtown Austin, despite significant opposition from Austinites. Opponents argue the expansion will attract more vehicle traffic while displacing residents and business owners in their path. The $4.5 billion highway project will be supported by federal funds.

Both Kane and Marohn say the US does not have effective or consistent definitions of success when evaluating projects. In many cases we are using outdated measures of success from the 20th century. For example, road performance is generally judged by how fast cars and trucks can travel on them, rather than whether people have options to navigate the roads outside the car, whether that’s walking, cycling or in a different way, Kane said. .

“We haven’t yet developed a consistent set of tools or benchmarks to even measure performance, like the physical performance of all these systems, let alone the ROI, or return on investment, for how to make this money a more equitable, affordable system could support. a better performing system in the 21st century,” said Kane.

Even with unprecedented new funding for climate and green initiatives, federal infrastructure spending on transportation heavily favors cars, trucks and other wheeled transportation. More than half of the infrastructure bill’s $1.2 trillion in funding is earmarked for road improvements and highway expansion projects, a recent Transportation for America analysis found.

The Biden administration has touted its grant program — part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — that funds the removal of underused highways and train tracks that often divide marginalized communities. In one major project, the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded the Michigan DOT and the city of Detroit $100 million to replace part of a highway running through a historically black neighborhood in the city with a pedestrian boulevard. While the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant Program has “the most potential” to do good, Marohn says, it largely serves as marketing for the administration’s vehicle-oriented transportation policy.

When it comes to water infrastructure, many communities are unaware of greener, nature-based drainage and sewer solutions – including rain gardens and forest buffers – that can be more cost-effective, resilient and sustainable than older centralized systems.

Inflation, labor shortages and other obstacles

There are some significant practical challenges in implementing infrastructure projects across the country.

One obstacle is inflation. Construction companies building all kinds of infrastructure face price inflation that far exceeds that of mainstream consumer products. Essential building materials also take longer to ship after they are purchased. This means that the money appropriated by the Biden administration’s legislation will likely not go nearly as far as intended.

A 2022 Brookings analysis found that if inflation were 2.3% higher than expected each year, “it would actually cause infrastructure industries to lose an estimated $137 billion in purchasing power through federal spending.” Cities and states also need a certain amount of their own money to make these infrastructure investments possible. Federal funding for most projects requires local governments to cover between 10% and 51% of expenses.

Another major obstacle is the severe shortage of construction workers and other talent. Unemployment in the construction sector is the second lowest on record, and vacancies are at record highs – more workers are urgently needed. Associated Builders and Contractors, an industry trade group, estimates that the U.S. will need about 500,000 new construction workers in 2024 and 2025 to meet labor demand. And there is no immediate solution to this problem in sight, despite a slew of efforts across the country to train and reskill workers. Congress has consistently failed to address one key lever: immigration policy.

Because infrastructure must be actively maintained over time, the costs associated with construction do not end when the project is completed. A city or state needs the financing, materials and skilled workers to perform regular maintenance and avoid the much higher costs associated with neglect.

“There’s a whole project life cycle that can lead to ongoing costs and problems over time,” Kane said.

Overcoming barriers

Local governments and employers across the country recognize many of the challenges of building and maintaining major projects.

Both blue and red states are expanding workplace and apprenticeship opportunities for high school students and others. The federal government also supports these efforts. Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act alone, “72 programs emphasize or permit some form of workforce development activity,” a Brookings report found.

Montana, which has seen a surge in new residents and housing demand in recent years, has introduced a tax credit for employers who send their workers to trade school, allowing high school students to receive college credit for working up to 20 hours per week. week to one, changing the ratio of skilled workers to interns, Gov. Greg Gianforte told Business Insider.

“Last year we created more students in the state of Montana than in the three previous years combined,” he said.

If used effectively, the flood of new federal infrastructure funding could help connect Americans — both physically and digitally — and educate the next generation.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *