Every administration faces the question of infrastructure. Every time the budget is restructured, infrastructure is a weight on the country’s mind. The government must deal with it, and they often start with tangible issues: Resurface the highways, support the bridges, etc., but the deeper issues continue to grow worse. In light of this history, the Trump administration’s proposed $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan looks to the public like a considerable investment. But according to Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering faculty members, this new proposed plan needs some improvements before it can be called a strong investment.
While the plan proposes a $1.5 trillion investment in the nation’s infrastructure, the federal government plans to pay only 13% of that number. The rest, as the plan states, will come from either state funding, or private investment. But this creates a number of foreseeable problems that engineers at Carnegie Mellon are already addressing.
Firstly, the plan contains no allotment for research and development (R+D) of new infrastructure technologies. Yet across the board there is need for cost effective, high-performing, monitored infrastructure. Large scale infrastructure renewal has been postponed for quite a while, leaving much of our infrastructure in a degraded or low-performing state that affects daily quality of life. Energy infrastructure, transportation, waterways, waste management, and resource management all need the investment of time and money to create new approaches and modern technology to meet the demands of our society and our changing environment.
“The infrastructure we install for the 21st Century must be more cost effective to operate and maintain, provide for higher quality of life for people and communities, be better integrated with and protective of the environment, and provide a stronger foundation for prosperity and economic development,” says Dave Dzombak, civil and environmental engineering (CEE) department head. “If we don’t invest in R+D, we’re stuck with the infrastructure we have right now, technology that was installed in the early 1900s through 1950.”
Much of this infrastructure is weakly monitored, not well controlled, and built with materials and methods reflecting knowledge of the period. Investment in R+D means implementing infrastructure that will make life more enjoyable for people and communities and will enable economic development and prosperity.
For example, the infrastructure currently in place across the country was designed with a 20th century climate in mind. But as the last few decades have shown, this is not the climate of the 21st century. Average temperatures are going up. Sea levels are rising. Increased precipitation levels are causing disastrous flooding in many areas of the country.
“The challenges that these new, more extreme climate conditions present mean we need stronger, more resilient infrastructure if our roads and energy infrastructure and sewer systems are going to stand up to this increased strain,” says Costa Samaras, assistant professor of CEE. “If we can build climate resilience into our new infrastructure now, we can create longer lasting solutions that won’t crumble under the weight of our shifting climate, saving the country’s taxpayers a lot of money down the line.”
If we don’t invest in R+D, we’re stuck with the infrastructure we have right now, technology that was installed in the early 1900s through 1950.Dave Dzombak, Hamerschlag University Professor and Department Head, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University
Decades of research performed at Carnegie Mellon and at other research institutions around the world shows that climate change does the most damage to the poorest areas. The further you look below the poverty line, the more devastating its effects—from increased flooding to crumbling infrastructure. But under the plan’s current funding model, these areas will also find it the most difficult to solve this problem.
According to this infrastructure plan, $100 billion dollars will be doled out via an Incentives program. But in order to receive this funding, projects must show they can secure long-term funding from non-federal sources, and that the project will spur economic and social investment returns. And though it provides an additional $50 billion in funding for rural infrastructure, as well as other specified and unspecified funds—the poorest communities, especially in urban areas, will have an exceedingly hard time meeting these criteria.
“This will steer money away from those areas most in need of infrastructure investment. This is inherently the problem: current decision making around infrastructure seems intrinsically tied to economic development, especially if the hope is for states to match investment. The places that can afford to match this investment likely don’t need it as much, while the places that can’t will likely continue to go unfunded,” says Daniel Armanios, assistant professor of engineering and public policy.
But all investments are a risk. In order for private companies to feel that investing in the infrastructure systems of these or any other areas, they need to know they will get a return on their investment. They don’t want to waste their money propping up failing systems. To ensure their money is well spent will require two things: incentives and data.
For the data, Carnegie Mellon is already conducting exciting research on smart infrastructure technologies designed to collect robust data on structural health, longevity, and much more. But greater investment is needed in order to further develop and implement these technologies.
“We need to implement smart infrastructure systems that enable data-driven decision-making. If we could extend the life of infrastructure—of roads, of pipe systems, etc.—and detect problems before they occur rather than wait for catastrophic breakouts, we can have infrastructure that lasts,” says Burcu Akinci, director of the Engineering Research Accelerator, associate dean for research for the College of Engineering, and the Paul Christiano professor of civil and environmental engineering.
Additionally, with access to these robust data, private companies would be able to better understand the risks and rewards of investing infrastructure, making them more likely to do so.
For the incentives, however, the responsibility lies with the federal government. As it stands, the proposed $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan must be updated to include increased incentives for private investment in infrastructure research and development, for climate-resilient infrastructure, and for investment in poorer communities.
“In order to reinvigorate our current infrastructure system with the technology of the future, our efforts must include a commitment to research and development to achieve new approaches and higher quality of life,” says Dzombak. “To engage the private sector, the government has to provide incentive for investment in not only renewing, but also researching and developing future technologies.”