The Evolution of the Definition of Infrastructure

As Congress ponders an infrastructure bill, systemic changes are obvious

By Mary Scott Nabers

While industry and public officials wait and hope that Congress will pass an infrastructure bill, big changes should be noted.

The infrastructure environment as we thought of it 18 months ago is significantly different today. Demand for, and prioritization of, critical infrastructure projects is changing and there are new areas of focus when it comes to classifying critical infrastructure needs. Many of the new categories are tied to sustainability.

The jury is still out on whether Congress will pass an infrastructure bill that funds infrastructure reform, but whether it happens or not, industry, investors, public officials and taxpayers who support investment in the country’s infrastructure have seen the shift and are adapting to a new, somewhat altered, environment.

The public at large still thinks of infrastructure as roads, bridges and tunnels, but the concept of infrastructure now encompasses more. Water, power, telecommunications, broadband and public facilities all fall within the definition of infrastructure. Large public safety projects are also being placed in the category of infrastructure – not so shocking when one realizes that infrastructure is defined as the underlying foundation, or system of public works, in a country, state, or region.

“The public at large still thinks of infrastructure as roads, bridges, and tunnels, but the concept of infrastructure now encompasses more.”

Of course, infrastructure encompasses all aspects of transportation but, because of climate change and sustainability goals, there are many more categories vying for infrastructure focus. Electric vehicle projects are front and center in many parts of the country, and as this trend grows, the shift will require a massive new network of charging stations. Flood mitigation projects, transmission line upgrades, renewable energy initiatives and power grid security projects are on launch pads throughout the country. Those projects are considered to fall under the umbrella of infrastructure.

Morningstar reports that assets in sustainability funds hit a high of $1.65 trillion months ago, and Bloomberg tells us that more than $501 billion has been pumped into energy transition. Investors are being drawn to infrastructure projects that protect the environment and the planet. That trend will result in private sector investments in large public infrastructure projects.

The winter storm that pummeled Texas in February focused the world on a critical need to upgrade, enhance and improve electric grids, transmission lines and water systems. Texans, unaccustomed to deadly freezing temperatures, were shocked with disbelief when millions of homes, businesses and hospitals lost power, heat, connectivity and water for many days. In some cases water service was not restored for weeks. When water operations were finally restored, citizens, for many days, had to boil drinking and cooking water because of contamination. The number of reported deaths, as a result of weather conditions and infrastructure failure, was 111.

Water problems are not unique to Texas. According to multiple reports, half of America’s freshwater basins will be unable to meet demand in future decades. And, with the inadequacy of water resources, it is disheartening to realize that the country’s 2.2 million miles of underground water pipelines suffer from 240,000 water main breaks every year – creating a treated water loss of about 6 billion gallons a day throughout the U.S.

As significant as that issue is, some believe it pales in comparison to the country’s water contamination problems. The national Academy of Sciences reports that millions of Americans live in areas where water systems fail to meet clean water safety standards. That means the drinking water has harmful contaminants.

More than 30 years after lead pipes were banned, numerous utilities still rely on them to distribute water to millions of homes. These conduits risk the health of tens of millions of people. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 23,000 to 75,000 sanitary sewer overflow events occur each year – thereby exacerbating the contamination problem. The Flint, Michigan water disaster failed to achieve an immediate focus on water safety regulations elsewhere, and today very few citizens ever check on the safety of drinking water where they live.

Forest fires and floods have resulted in new types of mitigation projects related to infrastructure. The same is true from the wreckage caused by tornadoes and other weather-related disasters. These projects also fall into the infrastructure category.

Is transportation still a basic and critical component of infrastructure reform? Of course! Are there other project categories that now play just as important a role? Absolutely.

Mary Scott Nabers is president and CEO of Strategic Partnerships Inc.