2020: The Year of Redirection for Infrastructure

COVID-19 may have deterred significant progress in infrastructure, but it has moved us toward the right goals.

By Sophia Acevedo

If there is one thing we will remember about 2020 it’s how the United States changed due to COVID-19.

Now while it wasn’t the year that we originally anticipated, 2020 straight away pointed out areas that needed improvement in the infrastructure industry. Back in March, COVID-19 — which at that point was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization — significantly impacted all sectors of society across the US, especially the infrastructure industry. Roads, water systems, energy grids and more were neglected as people stayed at home and didn’t travel, leaving streets, transit and airports with very limited people for the first few months due to stay at home orders and working from home.

As we’ve come to terms with realizing what is most important in our own lives, we can redirect ourselves in this industry in the same manner, heading onto a path that prioritizes infrastructure and recognizes our past wrongs.”

With less movement, came less money. Emily Feenstra, managing director, government relations of the American Society of Civil Engineers, shared in an article for American Infrastructure Magazine that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation expected to see losses of $800-900 million due to less gas tax revenue and a lack of licensing and registration fees in the state. She also noted that drinking water utilities expected to lose $14 billion in annualized revenue due to the pandemic, including nearly $5 billion in relation to suspending water service disconnections. As stated in the ASCE COVID-19 report, municipal and state budgets had to deal with the burden of financial losses while rearranging their plans for the year in order to accommodate health and safety.

However, as the year continued to unfold and headed into late summer, we began to find our footing. As shared in American Infrastructure’s September/October Issue, cities began to take more precautions regarding workers’ health and develop plans for the months ahead. In Phoenix, they accommodated by installing Plexiglass in City Hall and other downtown buildings. In Atlanta, they took extra precautions in noting possible COVID-19 symptoms while also requiring all employees to wear masks through an executive order.

States also took a similar approach. Rural areas were impacted by having to work and have school at home since some communities did not have access to broadband. States like Colorado and Illinois received funding from the US Department of Agriculture to provide expand access to broadband infrastructure to make sure that everyone throughout the state could be able to endure the circumstances posed by the pandemic.

Congress decided to take a small step forward as well and began to take some much-needed action toward addressing infrastructure and the environment through bipartisan effort.

In August, President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act,  which would give $1.9 billion per year for five years to deferred maintenance projects at the National Park Service and provides funding to the Land & Water Conservation Fund.

The Moving Forward Act, which has been passed by the House of Representatives and now moved onto the Senate, also shows some promise that could potentially lead to a national infrastructure plan.

Now with the presidential election behind us, it seems like we’ve reached yet another step forward as some of the unnecessary animosity between parties can be put aside in order to focus on what is most important: creating and passing legislation that is impactful for society.

Similarly, at the local level, cities also came out of the election cycle with some direction as some meaningful ballot initiatives on infrastructure were passed. In San Francisco, Calif., Bay Area residents approved Measure RR which provides funding for the future of Caltrain. In Austin, Texas voters approved Proposition A, which will help fund the $7.1 billion Project Connect transit plan, and Proposition B, which allows the city to borrow $460 million for infrastructure improvements such as maintenance for sidewalks or bikeways.

If we should take anything away from 2020 it’s that the year made us reflect on the status of our industry and begin preparations for something better. As we’ve come to terms with realizing what’s most important in our own lives, we can redirect ourselves in this industry in the same manner, heading onto a path that prioritizes infrastructure and recognizes our past wrongs.

With all that has happened this year, industry leaders need to make sure that they learn from our lack of action and move forward. They must prioritize health and safety in our workers, after reexamining the importance of these areas like never before this year. Federal, state, and local governments can look at which areas in infrastructure are in most dire need of replacement or improvement by area and work together to make these plans become a reality.

Sophia Acevedo is the assistant editor at American Infrastructure Magazine. She can be reached at sophia@builder.media.