There are times when opportunity and obligation come together. That is the case with the modernization of America’s infrastructure – the built environment that supports our productivity, competitiveness and quality of life.
From the little we know about the $1.5 trillion infrastructure improvement plan that Donald Trump has announced, however, there is little new to address the nontraditional but very important opportunities and threats that planners and investors should be considering today.
On the contrary, Trump’s emphasis on speeding up the environmental reviews for infrastructure projects combined with his refusal to acknowledge that global climate change is not only real, but also a clear and present danger to the American people, does not bode well for this massive investment to result in a more safe and resilient nation.
Much of our infrastructure must last for 30, 50 and in some cases nearly 100 years. So, it must be built with the future as well as the present in mind — and the future today is arriving much more rapidly than it used to. If we were to design a set of guidelines that were as forward looking as they were relevant now, what might they be? Here are some suggestions:
Systems engineering is more important than ever. Emerging technologies, changing social preferences, economic impacts and environmental trends all should be considered holistically in prioritizing and planning projects. So, infrastructure planning must start by creating collaborations between the many different disciplines relevant to modern infrastructure planning – disciplines that too often are isolated in their own stovepipes.
The future of mobility is an example. Many analysts and automakers believe that electric vehicles will soon dominate the nation’s fleets. That will require readily available recharging stations. To prevent more carbon emissions, the stations should provide distributed solar energy rather than central-station coal-fired electricity. Utilities may want to use vehicle batteries for storing their own renewable energy production. And if electric vehicles take hold in a big way, that could mean less investment is necessary for oil pipelines and refineries.
Electric vehicle infrastructure would be considered in the context of all future mobility options, including intermodal systems that connect airports with light rail to city centers, where travelers could switch to safe pedestrian, biking and low-carbon vehicle options. All of this would go hand-in-hand with urban planning to reduce traffic congestion, since road rage and productivity losses are just as bad when electric vehicles are gridlocked as they are in traffic jams of gas guzzlers.
Longevity should be balanced with adaptability. A goal of traditional infrastructure projects has been “immortality”, in other words building them to last for as many years as possible. Now, immortality has to be balanced with adaptability. Better materials and designs, along with changes in demographics, consumer preferences and environmental factors, suggest that our infrastructure should be able to adjust to change. Some of this is done today – for example, setting aside sufficient highway rights of way to accommodate light rail in the future. Communities may find that ecological infrastructure is more adaptable than engineered systems, for example revegetating watersheds and reviving wetlands to that reduce flooding rather than resizing existing dams and levees. This suggests that…
Natural ecosystems should be an important part of planning. The built environment has destroyed much of the natural environment in cities and suburbs. Today’s infrastructure planning should optimize both. Permeable urban surfaces, generous green spaces, urban forestry and green roofs all can absorb rainwater, reducing demands on engineered storm-water controls. Constructed wetlands have a role in purifying water.
Urban forestry helps reduce heat-related deaths and illnesses as well as reducing energy demands for inner-city cooling.
Infrastructure projects should be triaged. Some investments will be much more important than others to public safety. Potholes may be more aggravating, but reducing the danger of extreme rainfall will be a higher priority in many cities. Flood control dams and levees typically were built to last 50 years and to protect people from 100-year floods. Today, the average age of America’s 90,580 dams is 56 years, according to the ASCE. Just the dams whose failures would result in significant losses of life in the U.S. need $45 billion in repairs. Likewise, $80 billion is needed to maintain and improve the nation’s 30,000 miles of flood-control levees – systems that are supposed to be protecting an estimated $1.3 trillion worth of property.
Hurricane Harvey is an example of what can go wrong with current infrastructure. Dam operators at two sites were forced to release water and increase flood damages downriver because the structures could not contain the amount of rain that fell. Water overtopped the dams anyway. Residents near Houston has to evacuate when a levee system was breached by rising waters. These were not anomalies. There will be more such events ahead.
Solarize the grid. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have estimated that today’s commercially available renewable energy technologies could provide 80% or more of the nation’s electricity generation by 2050 in every region of the country, if the right investments were made in the electric grid. The researchers described in great detail what the institutional, technical and investment requirements would be.
In the interest of minimizing air pollution and carbon emissions, in eliminating the danger of price and supply volatility of fossil fuels, and in improving the security of America’s electric supply, lawmakers, investors, regulators and utilities should increase the amount of investment in renewable energy technologies. An important part of planning and investing in our electric system will be community-scale micro-grids for distributed solar and wind energy systems, making electric services less vulnerable to cyberattack, sabotage and weather-related outages.
Invest in rural areas. Early reports were that Trump’s infrastructure plan will include a well-funded Rural Infrastructure Program. That is obviously a plus. Eligible projects should include the expansion of the electric grid to rural areas where significant solar, wind and geothermal resources are available but stranded from the grid. Allowing rural residents to lease their lands for solar and wind farms increases agricultural income, creates jobs and provides new tax revenues for rural counties.
Infrastructure should be designed with weather disasters in mind. In addition to making engineered infrastructure more resilient, urban planning should take possible weather disasters into account. Climate scientists are increasingly able to project what climate impacts are likely to be at local scale. The Trump Administration, which has shut down information flows to citizens about advances in climate science, should reopen the channels. Communities should plan their road systems to give first responders access to as many residents as possible during floods and hurricanes and after tornados. First responder facilities as well as wells and sewerage systems should be located away from hazard zones. In addition, first responder facilities, important municipal services, hospitals, tornado shelters and other crucial facilities should be supplied with solar energy systems to back up their conventional power.
Infrastructure should be built with the latest materials, technologies and processes. Cement is one of the most common building materials in the world and its use is growing rapidly in developing countries. Cement is also a significant source of carbon dioxide pollution, between 5-8% of global emissions by one estimate. While it is not issue-free, engineers and construction companies should consider less carbon-intensive alternatives to traditional Portland cement and steel when those materials are suitable. Some of those alternatives already are commercially available.
Investors should require greater due diligence in weighing environmental as well as economic and social costs for infrastructure investments. Investors should require developers to prepare impact assessments that address several of the issues listed here. Climate impacts are particularly important because it is not clear today whether they are to be included in environmental impact analyses required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The Obama Administration encouraged federal agencies to factor climate change into their impact assessments of federally funded projects, but Trump rescinded that directive.
Consider the transferability and scaling of infrastructure innovations. The world needs to invest $94 trillion in infrastructure by 2040, according to the Global Infrastructure Hub, an organization created by the G-20. Nations would have to spend even more to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Because conditions and capabilities vary considerably between regions and around the world, some types and features of infrastructure in the United States probably will not be transferable to other locales. But some will. Communities and government agencies both should share the best practices and lessons they discover so those practices can be scaled up nationally and internationally.
None of these ideas are meant to suggest that planners, designers, engineers, regulators and investors do not now plan for future demands and risks. What I do mean to suggest is that those demands and risks are likely to be different and considerably more intense than ever before. In addition, the speed of innovation today means that new materials, technologies and designs are becoming more rapidly available.
Insofar as Congress and presidents have a role, they should make sure that states and communities are empowered, encouraged and able to make the nation’s infrastructure as resilient, adaptable and green as it can be.