We Need Real Infrastructure Improvements
Elected officials in Queens are calling for the passage of a federal infrastructure bill to prepared for future natural disasters like Hurricane Ida.
During a media roundtable last week, Borough President Donovan Richards acknowledged that many of the basement apartments that were flooded during the historic rainfall were illegally converted into residences.
“One of the reasons people in Queens, obviously, live in basements is because we are in an affordability crisis,” Richards said. “Basements play a key role in providing affordable housing, but also ensure that many of our senior citizens who may have retired can actually afford a mortgage.”
Richards noted he was a “basement baby” himself, and said his “basement apartment helped him get through college as well.”
Congresswoman Grace Meng said she “spent the first six years of her life in a basement in Queens.” She argued government can no longer afford to stall on upgrading the city’s infrastructure.
“I have constituents who might not be experts on infrastructure or climate change, but they know that they’ve made complaints to different levels of government before,” said Meng, “and they know that some of their neighbors have needlessly died.”
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries said he and his colleagues in Washington are working to pass the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill.
“We also are going to work hard to get any emergency spending bill over the finish line so that the areas that have been hit hard, like many parts of Queens, can continue to have the resources necessary to help build back stronger and more resilient,” he said.
America’s infrastructure is taking a beating — and not just from wear and tear. It’s hard to find an article about U.S. roads, bridges, or transmission lines that doesn’t describe them as “crumbling.”
It’s not that the original projects were poorly built. On the contrary, twentieth century U.S. infrastructure includes a long list of iconic marvels. These projects were imaginative, technologically bold, and transformative.
But concrete and steel wear out. While “crumbling” is perhaps rhetorical overkill, much of our twentieth century infrastructure is aging and struggling to meet current needs.
To that end, the president has challenged Americans to “build back better.” But what does “better” mean in the context of our bridges, roads, ports, and other infrastructure elements?
Today’s political momentum behind infrastructure has been absent for decades. It would be unfortunate if we lost this opportunity by reverting to the traditional thinking on what constitutes infrastructure. A transformative strategy must include an aggressive use of technology in the design, construction, and operation of new projects.
By integrating the digital and physical worlds, it’s possible to develop solutions that have no historical precedent. Digital construction, in the form of smart machines and site management tools, has already demonstrated potential. It can achieve project cost reductions of up to 25 percent, by improving productivity and reducing waste.
Meanwhile, the availability of cost-effective sensors coupled with reliable wireless connectivity, cloud-enabled access to data bases, and AI capabilities provide a platform for improvements in operating costs, project life, and user benefits.
While much of these technologies are still nascent, early developments are already in play across the country. Santa Clara County uses sensors and cloud-based calculations to adjust traffic lights on major roads, accounting for car volume as well as bicycles and pedestrians.
Early tests of a similar system in Pittsburgh found that it cut travel times by a quarter and idling by almost a third.
Smart water systems, such as the one being implemented in Louisville, Kentucky, detect leaks and hasten repairs. Real-time monitoring of dams and bridges provides status updates that allow the prioritization of maintenance and the avoidance of catastrophic failure.
Examples such as these are proliferating. So, any infrastructure legislation that doesn’t anticipate a continuing flow of innovation and provide appropriate incentives will fail.
Properly anticipating the trends that will challenge our future infrastructure is equally crucial. As a recent report from the Brookings Institution stated, our country “cannot simply react as the pace of digitalization accelerates.”
Constructing new versions of old infrastructure, however sensational it was for its era, will be insufficient to meet these challenges. Technology will future-proof our systems by enabling them to better adapt to changing conditions, and thereby extending their effective life.
The challenge of future-proofing our infrastructure will require imagination and vision from Republicans and Democrats. Some aspirational elements should be easy to agree on — namely, the need to build smart infrastructure.
By getting that strategy right, Congress will be making a wise investment — whatever the monetary amount. And the infrastructure we build today will sustain us long into the future.
Steve Berglund is the executive chairman of the Board of Directors at Sunnyvale-based Trimble Inc.
Even as Democrats and Republicans continue their negotiations, there is one aspect of infrastructure that still continues to enjoy broad support – and it also happens to be the most important part of the plan: billions of dollars in broadband infrastructure.
This investment would ensure every single American has access to high-speed internet. For the sake of our country’s economic well-being, leaders in Washington must make broadband expansion a priority. Doing so will change millions of lives for the better.
Expanding internet may feel secondary to funding improvements for roads, bridges, and highways. But as the pandemic made clear, internet is essential for nearly every aspect of daily life. Our economy simply cannot run without it.
But we’re lagging behind other countries when it comes to internet access. Around 23 percent of Americans lack a high-speed internet connection.
Among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, a club of developed nations, the United States ranks 15 out of 37 in fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.
Even if Americans do have broadband lines in their areas, the connection may be spotty or non-existent.
According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, poorer neighborhoods have internet speeds 40 percent slower than those in high-income neighborhoods. In rural counties, 65 percent of households connect to the internet, compared to 78 percent of households nationwide.
Americans of all ages miss out on opportunities when they don’t have adequate broadband connections.
Even before schools closed for in-person instruction, a third of K-12 students didn’t have a strong internet connection, a digital device, or both. Without internet, many students cannot complete basic assignments.
And they’re missing out on important skills needed in the modern workforce. Between 2002 and 2016, the need for digital skills increased by 95 percent for workers in all occupations and cities.
Today, 70 percent say they can’t do their job without an internet connection at home. Experts speaking at the World Economic Forum last year estimated that by 2030, nine in ten jobs will need digital skills.
Universal broadband would help close the digital divide between rich and poor Americans while keeping America competitive internationally.
For example, broadband investment will help the Americans employed in the agricultural sector. As of 2019, a quarter of farmers did not have access to the internet, even though up-to-date information about the weather, the economy, and USDA reports is vital to a farm’s success.
According to a report from the Breakthrough Institute, expanding rural broadband would allow farmers to adopt new technologies that could lead to a 60 to 70 percent increase in corn yields and generate up to $65 billion in economic revenue annually.
A new Brookings Institution report further underscores the benefits of expanded broadband. It concluded that increased internet usage is “associated with higher incomes, lower poverty rates, and higher levels of education.”
That’s not surprising. Reliable internet grants workers access to thousands of job postings, educational resources, and other networking opportunities. It provides business owners working from home with a gateway into e-commerce, which accounts for 14 percent of national retail sales.
None of that can happen without investment into new broadband infrastructure. As Democrats and Republicans work toward a deal on infrastructure, they need to make sure that they close the digital divide and ensure all Americans can participate and thrive in the 21st century economy.
Kip Eideberg is the senior vice president of Government and Industry Relations at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.
President Joe Biden is in ongoing talks to discuss his multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. Ever since its release, critics have claimed that many aspects of the plan have nothing to do with infrastructure.
However, that isn’t really fair.
Today’s economy requires the definition of infrastructure to go beyond traditional transit systems like roads and bridges. In fact, the Cambridge Dictionary defines “infrastructure” as the “basic systems and services that a country or organization uses in order to work effectively.”
This definition opens up the concept of infrastructure to include the things that make society function, allowing workers to do their jobs, businesses to grow, and people to transfer knowledge and information.
The traditional examples of infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and railways are hugely important. The delays caused by traffic jams alone cost the economy more than $120 billion every year in lost productivity.
But we need to invest in more than traditional infrastructure. We need to invest in the systems that move business, people, innovation, and communication forward.
COVID-19 merely accelerated a shift in digitizing our world, yet nearly 15 percent of U.S. households still lack high-speed internet. That hampers productivity.
If every U.S. household had access to broadband speeds of at least four megabits per second – the minimum to stream a standard definition video – the average household income would jump $2,100 per year, according to a study by telecom company Ericsson.
Building out broadband networks would grow the economy by enabling workers and consumers to connect with businesses of all sizes, whether they’re in Manhattan, New York, or Manhattan, Kansas.
Modern infrastructure also goes beyond digitization and broadband. It’s about how people are powered. Constructing solar, wind farms, and building a network of electric vehicle charging stations would make our economy more resilient to the changing climate.
Sea levels are rising and weather patterns are changing. As the intensity and frequency of droughts, hurricanes, and floods increases, so does the cost of recovering from these crises.
In 2020 alone, there were more than 20 separate climate disasters that cost at least $1 billion.
Those disasters displace workers. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, more than 150,000 workers filed for unemployment. And last year, wildfires in California displaced more than 50,000 people from their homes.
Mitigating climate change would help minimize this disruption.
President Biden’s plan does address these modern-day challenges. In addition to updating bridges, highways and roads, the proposal promises $100 billion to expand broadband infrastructure.
It puts $174 billion toward electric vehicle infrastructure, which will mitigate climate change by enabling Americans to switch to lower-emission vehicles.
These investments will generate enormous returns. The infrastructure package would create 2.7 million jobs over the next decade, according to an analysis by Moody’s Analytics.
For every $1 spent on infrastructure in the plan, GDP would rise by $1.50. In total, S&P Global estimates the package would add $5.7 trillion to the U.S. economy by 2024.
As a new report from the Brookings Institution notes, “Every few decades, Americans have called for a new infrastructure vision to meet new generational needs.”
Provisions in President Biden’s proposal aim to help our nation move forward by laying the foundation for sustainable economic growth and ensuring America remains an economic superpower for decades to come.
Jason Andringa is chair of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers’ “Infrastructure Vision 2050” task force. He is president and CEO at Vermeer Corporation.