- The United for Infrastructure 2020 virtual, weeklong event is taking place September 14-21.
- Panelists, including government officials and advocacy leaders, discussed how COVID-19 has re-emphasized the importance of investing in proper infrastructure in America.
- More people are working from home, making access to broadband internet more crucial than ever.
- Water and electrical systems are strained as people self-isolate, while transportation patterns have shifted as people commute less but get more products delivered to their homes.
- Investing in infrastructure, speakers including Kimberly Slaughter, senior vice president of infrastructure design firm HNTB Corp. said, can help the US achieve a speedy economic recovery post-pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed several flaws in America's infrastructure, while also shining a light on some of its potential. According to panelists at the United for Infrastructure 2020 Kickoff Event on September 14, there's a dire need to re-examine and rethink the country's infrastructure to ensure that it meets the needs of communities as they emerge from the crisis.
"What do we want from our infrastructure?" said Zach Schafer, executive director and CEO of United for Infrastructure, during the kickoff's opening remarks. "That question has taken on a new urgency and a deeper meaning this year. We have to take stock of our infrastructure and fight for the transportation, water, communications, and energy tools that every American deserves."
United for Infrastructure is a nonprofit that educates citizens and policymakers about the value of the nation's infrastructure to the economy and communities. The organization is hosting a weeklong event this week bringing together stakeholders to discuss the current state and future of the country's infrastructure.
The virtual kickoff event featured government, business, and community leaders from across the country, including Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce Thomas Donohue, President of the American Federation for Teachers Randi Weingarten, and many others. Conversations centered on the theme of #RebuildBetter — what infrastructure lessons communities can learn from the pandemic, especially related to transportation, broadband internet, and utilities, and why more investment and innovation are needed for the future.
Investing in transportation creates safer and equitable communities, especially as deliveries increase and essential workers lean on public transit to commute
The pandemic has enabled more people to work from home and made remote learning a necessity for millions of students. These shifts are changing transportation patterns and the environmental impact. For example, people may not be driving to work every day, but they're getting more items delivered.
"Most of the traffic in my neighborhood was UPS, FedEx, and Amazon," Roger Millar, secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation, said during the panel "Infrastructure, COVID, and Recovery."
"What do we do to decarbonize that space?" he added. "What do we do to engage in the whole issue of curb management as business goes forward? Great opportunities; great challenges."
Green New Deal initiatives are one solution, and Garcetti highlighted Los Angeles' efforts to get drivers out of their cars, put electric buses on the streets, and make the city carbon-neutral over the next few years.
"We have the vision to see our infrastructure as a project for more than this moment, but also for generations ahead," Garcetti said. "All of this can sound pretty far-reaching [in] this time of unprecedented crisis, but this is precisely the time we all need to think big, because in the face of the crisis of COVID-19, we can't afford to simply respond and rebuild for the near term."
Transportation infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and railways, has been underfunded for decades. It's also played a role in fostering inequality in communities, which has been made worse by the pandemic.
"Our transit systems, while facing a dire fiscal and safety crisis, have continued to get essential workers to work," Schafer said. "Yet many communities' transportation networks are still plagued by a legacy of systemic inequality encoded into our infrastructure that makes commutes harder and now riskier for many people of color and for many disadvantaged groups who simply can't afford a car or a place to park it."
Added Kimberly Slaughter, senior vice president of infrastructure design firm HNTB Corp., "Upgrading our transportation infrastructure not only makes our communities safer, more sustainable, livable, and more prosperous, it also can make them more just and equitable."
Utility systems are becoming strained as people work from home
More than two million Americans lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation, according to the US Water Alliance. And as the pandemic has changed much about how we live and work, it's putting extra pressure on our utility systems, including water systems and electrical grids.
Plus, Schafer said the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus could mean millions of Americans may struggle to afford basic utilities.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently launched a study to measure the gaps in electric infrastructure. "Our energy grid is just one component of infrastructure that helps drive the economy, support our quality of life, and ensure public health, safety, and welfare," said Tom Smith, ASCE executive director. "Unfortunately, we've been underinvesting in our infrastructure for decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made a difficult situation worse."
This year, states have experienced more power outages than in years past, caused by severe storms like Hurricane Laura and rising temperatures, Smith said. This has disrupted productivity and placed hardships on the public and businesses, and it's projected to cost households thousands of dollars this year.
Access to broadband internet is more important than ever
The Federal Communications Commission estimates that more than 20 million households lacked access to broadband internet in 2017, but recent research by advocacy group Broadband Now puts the number at 42 million. Black and Latino households are less likely to have broadband than their white counterparts.
The need for high-speed internet is more crucial than ever. Along with more adults working remotely, school districts and colleges and universities across the country have switched to all or partial virtual learning this year.
To address the need, Congress allocated funding in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help rural residents access broadband internet. That included additional funds for the ReConnect Program, an initiative of the US Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service that provides grants for building, improving, and acquiring broadband infrastructure.
Broadband internet should be viewed as a valuable piece of utility infrastructure that connects people digitally in the same way highways connect cities physically, said Andy Berke, mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which offers citywide ultra-high-speed internet to its residents. The city is now expanding access to every child in the county who receives free or reduced lunches for the next 10 years. That amounts to more than 28,500 students.
"We knew this before the pandemic, but it's even more true now," Berke said. "High-speed internet isn't a luxury. It's a utility. We need to treat it like one by making it possible for a child to attend classes if school is closed for COVID; helping that child's parents look for a job or finish a degree online so they can boost their take-home pay; allowing families to see each other and stay connected even when they're separated by hundreds of miles."
Investing in a national broadband plan would boost economic potential at a time when unemployment is rising and many families face an uncertain financial future, Berke added.
The pandemic has strained nearly every facet of life, including the infrastructure people use every day, Slaughter said, but looking back on past crises and economic downturns, infrastructure investments have been a catalyst for recovery.
"We know that investing in infrastructure can play a crucial role in our recovery, allowing us to remake our communities with public works projects that improve our lives, reduce carbon emissions, increase access to education, healthcare, and careers, and create high-paying, sustainable jobs," she said.
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