Looking Beyond Infrastructure Week

Looking Beyond Infrastructure Week

May 13, 2022  | Phil Plotch

Looking Beyond Infrastructure Week

Infrastructure Week 2022 starts on Monday, May 16. After a decade of coordinated (and uncoordinated) infrastructure weeks, the broad effort to convince Congress to infuse significant funding to modernize and upgrade our existing infrastructure culminated with the signing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in November. After passage comes the difficult part — public agencies, industry, and advocates need to engage on important issues to ensure that the law can achieve its goals. The following seven recommendations (one for each day of the week) will help determine whether the law’s outcomes will meet our hopes and Congress’s expectations.

The White House needs to help USDOT get the money out the door. It’s one thing to allocate billions of dollars, but state and local agencies still need numerous federal approvals before they can start spending it. Ensuring that the IIJA money ends up funding projects in a timely manner requires a joint effort between the federal government and the state and local recipients. The White House needs to continue putting pressure on federal agencies to set priorities and streamline their approval processes for environmental reviews and permitting. Even if U.S. DOT does have sufficient resources and staff to administer transportation funds, it still needs to work with numerous other federal agencies before approving projects and cutting checks. For example, Seattle’s proposed light rail expansion requires approvals from FEMA, Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Interior Department not to mention state and local agencies. We will be assessing whether the Permitting Action Plan announced by the Biden Administration last week helps with interagency coordination.

States and localities need to prioritize projects in a way that upgrades infrastructure faster than it crumbles. Approximately 20 percent of our highways and major roads are in poor conditions while 24,000 buses and 5,000 rail cars need to be replaced. There are three main financial threats to IIJA becoming a missed opportunity to bring America’s infrastructure to a state of good repair. First, gas tax revenues could be lower than anticipated because people are driving less, legislatures are declaring gas tax holidays, and more people than expected may be shifting to electric vehicles. Second, inflation is eroding the buying power of the new law. Third, states and transit agencies need to invest in a way that ensures their ability to maintain assets into the future rather than expanding too rapidly without the demand and revenues to support it.

All levels of government need to monitor IIJA investments. The bipartisan bill was not some one-shot program like sending astronauts to the moon – fixing our transportation system is a perpetual endeavor. Eventually, federal funds will need to be allocated for programs beyond September 2026. Before Congress does so, members of the Senate and House will want to know what the return on investment has been for the 2021 infrastructure law — such as whether states or agencies have been able to improve safety, mobility, and reliability. This also includes measuring whether and how the benefits are spread across all segments of our society. We also have to carefully measure outcomes because even programs with bipartisan support can lead to unintended consequences.

Investment decisions need to reckon with COVID’s effect on planning, construction, and management. The last two years have upended lives and many of those changes will have long-lasting impacts. Labor shortages, travel pattern changes, and supply chain issues will shift priorities and revise projects. For example, with many American businesses allowing more remote office work, projects that increase transit or highway capacity for white collar workers traveling to central business districts during rush hour might not be as important as they seemed just a few years ago. To make wise decisions, we must keep a close eye out for trends and constantly be evaluating and interpreting modal, spatial, and demographic travel data.

Public agencies need to address concerns revealed once projects are funded. Without sufficient funds, plans stay on drawing boards and projects languish. But when the gravy train shows up, it often exposes shortcomings in our procedures and technical resources. Likewise, it may expose the weakness in our ability to generate support and build coalitions. That is why periodically reviewing regulations, procedures, and staffing is so important. Moreover, we can spend a trillion dollars on transportation, but perceptions about public safety on our transit services may impede our progress towards creating a more efficient, sustainable, and equitable transportation system. To address these challenges, transportation officials need to proactively and continuously work with public agencies outside of transportation, such as social service and law enforcement agencies.

Government agencies need to develop and nurture their workers’ expertise. Just as our physical infrastructure systems are aging and in need of attention, so too are the workers who design, construct, and operate these systems. Even before the pandemic, Eno has been sounding the alarm about the problems associated with hiring and retaining qualified employees. The USDOT alone is now advertising for 465 vacancies. One way that transportation agencies can attract more employees is by talking more about how infrastructure benefits people in their daily lives, rather than the life span of reinforced concrete or the latest advances in signal timing. The worker shortage also ties into a skills shortages. For example, Eno has found that agencies do not have enough employees to develop training programs. That is critical because we need to continuously identify the skills that our employees need and then take action to fill the gaps.

We need to learn from each other. We have 50 states and thousands of transportation-related organizations starting new projects, each of them incubators for potential innovative techniques. At Eno, we are keeping our eyes open for success stories so that we can help states learn from each other. And, just as importantly we will be on the lookout for agencies who have recognized their shortcomings and learned from their failures.

These are just seven ways that we can help the new law achieve its lofty goals of rebuilding our aging infrastructure and improving transportation options with its focus on climate change, equity and safety. In the past, Infrastructure Week has emphasized the need for Congress to allocate more funds. Now, we have an obligation to use those funds effectively and efficiently.

Philip Plotch is the Principal Researcher at the Eno Center for Transportation. You can reach Philip with ideas, reactions, or insights at pplotch@enotrans.org.

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